Tony Kuplic played in only eight games for the St. Thomas men’s soccer team this season as a reserve forward. He took zero shots.
He didn’t even see action in 11 of the first 13 games. He was given a roster spot following open tryouts after being cut four years ago as a freshman.
So how can Kuplic’s sudden hero status on campus be explained? In four NCAA playoff games, Kuplic has scored five goals, including two game-winners in overtime, to send the Tommies to the Division III national semifinals for the first time in program history.
“I think it’s unexplainable,” Kuplic said.
St. Thomas coach Jon Lowery was an all-metro player at Apple Valley, an All-Big Ten player at Ohio State and a former Major League Soccer player.
He’s at a loss for words, too.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Lowery said.
The unexplainable began last week in the NCAA first round with St. Thomas trailing St. Scholastica 1-0 in the second half. Kuplic scored with less than three minutes left in regulation to tie it and then scored again late in the second overtime.
He provided an insurance goal in the second half of a 2-0 victory over Luther in the second round.
His magic continued Sunday when St. Thomas trailed Redlands (Calif.) 2-0 with 20 minutes left in regulation. Things looked bleak until Kuplic scored in the 71st minute and then again in overtime for a 3-2 victory.
“I was in a state of disbelief,” Kuplic said.
This unexplainable thing that is happening deserves context.
Lowery cut Kuplic during tryouts as a freshman. He loved his athleticism but wanted players with more pedigree from top high school and club programs. Kuplic, a Burnsville native, attended Trinity School in Eagan and had 60 kids in his graduating class.
Kuplic tried out for St. Thomas basketball after being cut in soccer and caught the eye of coach John Tauer during his annual conditioning test. Kuplic shattered the team record.
“He finished 12 seconds faster than anybody we’ve ever had,” Tauer said.
He ran so fast that he separated from the other players, confusing one of Tauer’s assistants who thought Kuplic was just a random student running sprints.
“It was like Forrest Gump,” Tauer said.
Kuplic played JV basketball for one season and was a deep reserve in one varsity season.
Tauer called Kuplic “probably the most disciplined young man I’ve ever seen.” He wakes up every morning at 4:45 a.m. to pray, eat breakfast and study. He carries a 3.9 grade-point average as a mechanical engineering major.
Kuplic took a mission trip to the Caribbean island of Grenada for one year after high school. He taught social studies to eighth graders and coached varsity basketball. Games were played on a concrete court by the ocean with double rims and high winds.
“It was very different,” he said.
Kuplic never lost his love of soccer, even after being cut. He signed up again for open tryouts before this season. He was the only senior in the group of hopefuls.
Lowery met with his assistants to discuss their returning roster and what they might want to add. They needed someone who could perform long throw-ins.
As they walked to the field for tryouts, Lowery asked Kuplic how far he can throw it. Pretty far, he replied. Then he grabbed a ball, took five steps and launched it.
Lowery turned to his assistant and whispered that Kuplic made the team.
It took time, but Kuplic evolved into their energizer substitute. He enters the game late in the first half and again sometime in the second half when the opponent looks fatigued. He plays around 30 minutes a game.
“Within 20 to 25 yards,” Lowery said, “this kid has an uncoachable sense for how to stick the ball in the back of the net.”
So why not start him? Lowery believes Kuplic’s athleticism is more effective when the opponent is tired. The whole “less is better” argument.
“I think if Tony goes for 90 minutes, maybe we get a 6 or a 7; if he goes for 30 minutes, we’re getting a 9 of a 10,” Lowery said.
Plus, the Tommies have a good thing going, so why mess with that? They won the MIAC outright for the first time in 25 years and made the NCAA playoffs after a 21-year absence. Now 20-1-3, they have reached the national semifinals — facing Tufts on Dec. 2 in Salem, Va. — by winning three of four NCAA playoff games in overtime.
“There’s something magical about this team,” Lowery said.
The Tommies men’s basketball team won the national title last season, so they are believers in magical runs. Tauer’s team returned from a tournament in Washington on Sunday, and his players checked their phones after landing to find the soccer score.
St. Thomas was losing 2-0. Players joked that, don’t worry, Kuplic will save the day. Then he scored.
They checked their phones at baggage claim after the game went into overtime. They joked again that Kuplic will win it.
Players erupted moments later when the final score flashed and they saw who scored.
“This would be a Disney movie if it’s a Division I school,” Tauer said.