The record books for the Gophers and St. Thomas volleyball teams will remember Thursday's match at Maturi Pavilion with only a box score, but beyond the numbers history was made.
Two Division I programs from Minnesota officially competed against each other for the first time in any sport other than hockey.
The same year Gophers volleyball last reached the Final Four in 2019, St. Thomas received an invitation to make the jump from Division III and was finally eligible this season.
"This was an incredible opportunity for our team in terms of what we need to learn to make it to the next level," said Tommies coach Thanh Pham, who has two assistants with Gophers ties.
In one section opposite the St. Thomas bench, a sprinkling of fans decked in purple and gray ignited when Fran Egan from Washburn scored the program's first point in Division I against the Gophers with a ball landing in the back row.
"It's definitely a different perspective for sure from when we were little looking from the stands," St. Thomas' Lauren Galvin said. "Now, being on the court, it was like 'Wow, we're really here.'"
The significance of the night was also not lost on Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose team opened the Diet Coke Classic with a 25-14, 25-8, 25-7 win in front of 5,386.
St. Thomas isn't expected to adjust to D-I competition overnight in volleyball — or any of the other 18 sports sponsored by the Summit League, including men's and women's basketball.
"They're now the other Division I team in the state," McCutcheon said. "It seemed like kind of a cool thing to try and get started for volleyball in Minnesota. … Trying to see if we could establish some kind of tradition there."
The Gophers (4-3) entered the night ranked No. 11 in the nation and were coming off back-to-back wins over top 15 opponents Stanford and Oregon in Eugene, Ore. They had played one of the toughest early nonconference schedules under McCutcheon, with five of their first six matches vs. ranked opponents.
Playing let alone beating up on the Tommies, who dropped to 1-8, wasn't in any way going to boost the Gophers' NCAA tournament résumé. So McCutcheon decided to rest All-American senior Stephanie Samedy in advance of Saturday's match against Iowa State. The Cyclones play St. Thomas on Friday.
Before Thursday, the only Gophers-St. Thomas meeting this year was a soccer exhibition game Aug. 14. The Gophers aren't scheduled to play St. Thomas again until the women's hockey teams face off at the U on Jan. 8 as part of WCHA Women's League play. But St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said both programs are working on more events together in the spring season, possibly in softball, baseball, tennis, and track and field.
"There are a lot of factors that go into scheduling," Esten said. "It's not just competitiveness alone. Whether it's Minnesota or anybody else, we need to think about the economics, you think about the recruiting, the wins and losses, and the experience of the student-athlete … we hope that over time it starts to line up that we can have a regular competition with Minnesota."
St. Thomas and Minnesota have gone head-to-head before in athletics since the schools were established in 1885 and 1851, respectively. The Gophers defeated the Tommies all three times in football, but they lost in men's basketball once in seven meetings, 25-24, in 1933.
So far, the Tommies arguably have made the biggest splash in Division I on the recruiting trail. Four-star Totino-Grace big man Ahjany Lee picked the Tommies basketball over Kansas and Stanford earlier this week. The 6-9 native of Byron, Minn., was also offered a scholarship early on by the Gophers.
Going to Division I boosted St. Thomas' recruiting across the board, especially within the state with another option to stay home and play at a higher level, which now includes facing the Gophers.
"We know it's going to be a journey for us," Esten said. "But we've got to start at some point."