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Gene's Blog: Esten era in athletics off to thrilling start

Mark Brown photo
Mark Brown photo


PHOTO: Phil Esten (left) and President Julie Sullivan (Mark Brown photo)


Dr. Phil Esten flew to the Twin Cities from Pennsylvania last Saturday afternoon in preparation for his Monday return to Summit and Cretin Avenues.

A loyal and accomplished alum, Esten's last official days with St. Thomas athletics came 24 years ago. He wound down his college baseball career that spring and later walked across the stage to accept his undergrad diploma.

Today, he's back in the corner office on the third floor of the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex. He's starting his next chapter as a university Vice President and Director of Athletics. 

Esten brings personality and promise to St. Thomas after a five-year run as deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer for Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics. He previously served the University of California, Berkley (2012-2014); the University of Minnesota (2004-2012) and The Ohio State University where he earned his master's degree. He earned his Ph.D. in kinesiology/sports management at Minnesota.

Yes, Steve Fritz is still on board -- through spring semester in the hallways and sidelines, and forever as a friend and resource. That will allow for a smooth transition from the past/present to the future.


Welcome Week

Sorry, but the cynic in me thinks it's more than a coincidence that just as Phil arrived back in the Twin Cities, Tommie winter teams and their head coaches stepped up their game over the weekend.

Scanning the basketball, hockey, swim-dive and track and field results, it sure looked like Ruth, Johnny, Palko, Duke, Scott, Steve and Joe were trying to make an especially good first impression on the new boss.

Really, Johnny... three overtimes? You'll be happy to know that like many of us, Phil was glued to his phone watching the video conclusion to your crazy road win at Augsburg. 

As a fellow athletics staffer, noticing these head coaches' clear intent to court favor with our leader, all I can say is: "Game on." 

I have it on good authority that Dr. Esten prefers deep dish, and his favorite cookie is chocolate chip walnut, so we'll see who finishes first in the first impression department. (I might even tidy up the SID office so Phil will think I'm organized.) Deutsch and Proshek have the golf-course connections, but I have something they don't: I'm a bad golfer, so I won't even have to try to let Phil beat me.

Kidding aside, it was a fun weekend to be a Tommie sports fan, and perhaps an omen of what's to come in the Esten era.


Track and Field

Under coaches Steve Mathre and Joe Sweeney, St. Thomas opened its 2019 portion of its indoor season Friday at Anderson Fieldhouse with several notable performances on the men's and women's sides. 

The Tommie men have recorded seven top-12 national marks and times, while the women have four top-25 national marks and times. St. Thomas has the No. 2-ranked Division III shot putter for both the men (David Danhauer) and women (Megan Gehrke), and the No. 3-ranked men's weight throw athlete (Eric Holst).

Six weeks remain until the MIAC Indoor Championships, with eight weeks until indoor nationals.



Coach Scott Blanchard's athletes just keep grinding away as they posted team victories Saturday at the St. Thomas Invite at Anderson Pool. 

These hard-working Tommies are preparing for the conference championships in five weeks, planting the seed this month for some nice time drops in February. 

It will be fun to see how fast that senior leaders like Tom Negaard, Katelyn Strauss and Alex Howard will go as they close out their careers.


Men's Hockey

Coach Jeff "Duke" Boeser has 19 juniors and seniors who seem to enjoy playing hockey together. So we shouldn't be surprised the Tommies are 5-0-1 since Dec. 1, and 9-4-2 overall. 

They have outscored those six teams 25-13. The latest victories were hard-fought 3-2 and 3-1 margins over Gustavus last weekend.

Two freshmen have stepped up: goalie Cam Burggrabe is 6-0-1 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.13 goals-against average; forward Luke Radetic scored the winning goal Friday night in overtime. Radetic shares the team lead with Brett Gravelle, and his 10 goals are third most in Division III among freshmen.


Women's Hockey

No. 3-ranked St. Thomas pushed its record to 13-0 on the season with a 3-1 home win Friday over No. 9-ranked Gustavus. 

On Saturday, the Toms fell behind 2-0 to the Gusties in the game's first 7:00 on the road. It sure looked like St. Thomas would finally lose to the law of averages and to GAC. Then the Toms reached back and netted two third-period goals to tie the game, and after a scoreless overtime the contest ended 2-2.
Gustavus was a thorn in the Tommies' side most of last decade -- the Purple went just 4-17-3 against the Gusties from 2003-2013. Now the Toms are 5-0-3 in their last eight meetings.

St. Thomas' NCAA-best unbeaten streak is now at 27 (21-0-6). Coach Tom Palkowski's team is also 10-0-4 in its last 14 road games. The Tommies even received six first-place votes in this week's U.S. College Hockey Online top-10 poll.

True to form, the Toms' five weekend goals came from five different players. Senior goalie Kenzie Torpy (13-0-1) ranks second in Division III in both save percentage (.970) and goals-against average (0.59). Here's one team that doesn't need a therapy session from any Dr. Phil anytime soon.


Women's Basketball

No. 4-ranked St. Thomas made the Star Tribune sports page on Saturday morning... well, indirectly. Columnist Patrick Reusse penned an interesting story spotlighting our friend and Hall of Fame Tommie head coach Ted Riverso. Ted has Augsburg women's basketball on the rise, and the Tommies were a secondary theme.


St. Thomas and the Auggies came into Saturday's game in Minneapolis both 7-0 atop the MIAC standings. Besides the race for the MIAC trophy, there was a more immediate issue: The Toms' 61-game win streak against conference opponents was also on the line.

You may only read this fact in a Gene's Blog or a Geno's Blog: The only NCAA hoops team with a longer conference win streak than the Purple is Geno Auriemma's mighty UConn Huskies (104-0 all-time in the American Athletic Conference). Last week alone, D-III conference women's win streaks ended in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UW-Superior, seeking No. 60, lost on the road) and the Iowa Conference (Wartburg, seeking No. 33, lost on the road).

Defense ruled the day at Augsburg, and Coach Ruth Sinn's Tommie team survived a good test to win 49-34. St. Thomas is allowing just 49.5 ppg in its eight MIAC victories. Another good challenge awaits Ruth's ladies Wednesday night at home with Bethel, and her seniors (98-9 record so far in their era) continue a march to 100.


Men's Basketball

No. 16-ranked St. Thomas was looking to push its win streak to 12 and stay in a share of the MIAC lead on Saturday as it visited Augsburg, a team it lost to three times last winter. 

In the November preseason MIAC coaches poll, the Toms were picked for fourth, while the Auggies were tabbed for fifth. Both teams have exceeded those expectations: St. Thomas came into Saturday with 11 wins, while Augsburg had 10. The Auggies rank in the top 30 nationally in free-throw and 3-point shooting, and at times at home look like they're playing a video game draining rainbow shots on offense. Over the last four games, Augsburg has swished 60 treys at a 47-percent clip.

The Toms appeared to have a low-scoring win secured, as they led 63-60 and set to go on defense with a dozen seconds to play. Wouldn't you know it: St. Thomas has been whistled for 704 fouls the last two seasons in 39 games (18 per contest), yet the one time when Coach John Tauer welcomed a foul, the officials didn't cooperate. His guys grabbed an Auggie sort of intentionally to avoid a potential tying shot, yet no whistle, no free throws. The hosts worked two slick passes and drained a clutch 3-pointer to tie with :01.3 on the clock. Overtime.

St. Thomas checked all the boxes on the comeback card: trailed by eight points in the first half, down nine in the second half, and trailed two in the first OT. The Toms later fell behind 88-83 with 49 seconds left in the second overtime before storming back to force a third OT. They even trailed 93-91 early in the third OT.

If this was a TV medical show, Tauer's guys would have been declared legally dead three or four times, placed in a body bag, then carted off to the morgue. Thanks to freshman guard Anders Nelson's 10-for-10 free-throw spree in overtime -- and 35 of his 37 points coming over the game's final 35 minutes on the clock -- the Tommie winning streak lives on for another day, now at 12. Nelson's clutch shots kept the Toms afloat at the end of the first and second overtimes.

The game had 13 ties and 10 lead changes, and at crunch time seemed to have more timeouts than most child day-care centers. But it was a blast to watch, whichever team you wanted to win. The final: Purple 112, Maroon 105. Forget about the Monday Jan. 21 Tommie-Johnnie showdown... the Tommie-Auggie rematch is 26 days away at Schoenecker Arena. (Kidding, of course: Bethel looms on the road this Wednesday, and that's where Tauer has his team's sights).

If you are counting, Tommie hockey and basketball teams are now 14-0-1 in 2019 after a tough gauntlet. 

Three things Phil Esten will quickly realize: it's rarely boring in January at Summit and Cretin; it's a competitive group here in Tommie athletics; and he shouldn't fall for the free Nike gear that some of his coaches will shamelessly drop on his desk. 

So welcome, boss. And if your daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies, put me down for six cases.


Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 25th season at St. Thomas and 31st overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at