Anders Nelson had been looking forward for the past 10 months, longing for the day when St. Thomas would start a new basketball season. When it finally arrived Wednesday, at Hamline's historic Hutton Arena, the junior guard suddenly felt the urge to look back.
The Tommies had played in that old gym since the days of woolen uniforms and canvas high-tops. With their impending move to NCAA Division I, Nelson realized the season opener marked the beginning of the end for their 100 years of membership in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He and his teammates were closing a long chapter of St. Thomas history that night, a milepost that wasn't lost on him.
"I looked at some of the guys on the bench and said, 'Here we go. This is the last time we'll be here,' " Nelson said. "It's a little weird to think we're playing these teams for the last time. There's definitely a little nostalgia.''
St. Thomas' 20 sports will jump from Division III to Division I in July, scattering across four different conferences. Before all those hellos, they will say their goodbyes to the MIAC, the only league the Tommies have ever known.
A member of the MIAC since its founding in 1920, St. Thomas has won 516 MIAC team championships — 442 regular-season titles and 74 playoff crowns — and at least one league title in every sport it has sponsored. It has captured the MIAC's men's and women's all-sports championships in each of the past 12 seasons, along with 15 of the 39 NCAA championships earned by MIAC teams.
That dominance led the MIAC Presidents' Council to throw St. Thomas out of the conference in May 2019. Since then, hurt feelings have given way to warm memories, as the Tommies embark on a farewell tour through the MIAC and D-III.
The pandemic has complicated their final season. Competition in winter sports began only 10 days ago — several weeks later than usual — and there already have been some COVID-related postponements. Schedules are reduced, the MIAC and NCAA tournaments have been canceled, and fall and spring sports remain on hold.
"It's not what we wanted or expected," women's track and cross-country coach Joe Sweeney said. "But having the opportunity for one last go-round to compete against the MIAC schools, we're certainly grateful."
The Tommies' MIAC-only season is off to a stellar start. The men's and women's indoor track teams won 23 of 27 events in a Friday dual meet against Augsburg, and men's hockey won its opener last week. Both basketball teams are 2-0 after victories over Concordia (Moorhead) on Saturday.
Men's basketball coach John Tauer chuckled at Nelson's wistfulness. Nelson has played only a handful of games at Hutton Arena, and Tauer doesn't think his All-MIAC guard even knew where Hamline was before joining the Tommies.
But Tauer said that sums up the uniqueness of the MIAC. Like Nelson, he quickly felt a bond with the league, one he expects to survive St. Thomas' departure.
"There's a lot of nostalgia," said Tauer, whose Tommies playing and coaching career has spanned 25 years. "It goes all the way back to when my dad, who was a St. Thomas alum, took me to games at the old O'Shaughnessy Hall. There are a lot of friendly rivalries, great relationships and fun memories that have been a huge part of my life.
"As a student-athlete, the MIAC left an indelible impression on me. It's a big part of why I went into teaching and coaching. We'll try to take a little more time to smell the roses this season, knowing it's the last time we'll be competing in these gyms."
As St. Thomas exits, St. Scholastica will join the MIAC, keeping the league at 13 schools. Several Tommies coaches have spent their entire careers in the MIAC, and Tauer is one of many who also played in the league.
Sweeney ran for St. Thomas in the 1970s and has led the women's track and cross-country
programs for 41 years. Steve Mathre has spent 31 seasons coaching Tommies men's track. John Tschida is in his 21st season as softball coach, Chris Olean has devoted 25 years to the baseball program as a player and coach, and former Tommies basketball star Ruth Sinn is in her 16th season as coach of the women's team.
Sweeney likened the transition to a family relocating to a new neighborhood. It's hard to be uprooted, he said, but the Tommies are excited about joining D-I, and life will move on.
"I've been doing this for a long time, and [the MIAC] is all I've ever known," said Sweeney, whose teams have won 85 of a possible 114 MIAC team championships. "The relationships you build with other coaches and the rivalries you have, it's difficult to leave that behind.
"But the direction we're going at St. Thomas, it seems providential that we have this opportunity to go to D-I. We'll still have our old friends and old relationships, and we'll create new ones going forward."
Several coaches said those relationships run strong in the MIAC, adding to the sentimental feeling. Women's hockey coach Tom Palkowski will miss matching wits with Gustavus coach Mike Carroll, his good-natured rival for two decades. Tauer has long-running friendships with men who coached in the league when he was playing.
MIAC athletes forge similar connections, often lingering on the field, court or track to socialize after competitions. The league offers a unique collegiality, Mathre said, where friendships born at track meets can blossom into lifelong bonds.
Tommies women's hockey goalie Eryn Cooley said it doesn't take long to feel like part of the MIAC family.
"This is very bittersweet," said Cooley, a junior. "As excited as we are to start challenging ourselves in the WCHA, we'll miss the rivalries, and we'll definitely miss the girls we play against. We've built such great relationships and connections."
With all of its teams located in the state, Sinn said the MIAC offers a Minnesota flavor — and a proximity — that can't be replaced. "We could walk to Macalester if we wanted to," Sinn joked. "We'll miss those short commutes."
Tauer was already waxing nostalgic. On a recent visit to Northfield, he drove past the gyms at Carleton and St. Olaf and recalled countless postgame meals at Basil's Pizza Palace. He said those memories will stay with him, as will the Division III and MIAC philosophy that shaped St. Thomas athletics for generations.
Once the Tommies leave the league, Tauer and other coaches plan to keep in touch, like any old friend would do.
"I've been involved with the MIAC for more than 30 years," Mathre said. "It's in my blood. I'll still be following it, just as a fan."