A national championship last May brought the St. Thomas baseball team on-field recognition before a Minnesota Twins game, a meeting with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a spectacular two-page celebration photo in Sports Illustrated as the losing Wooster pitcher walked off the mound.
The title also placed big bulls-eyes on the backs of 19 returning players, who know that every opponent this year will take its best shot at knocking off the No. 1 Tommies.
And they’re just fine with that. In fact, they like being the top-rated team in the country because they know it will force them to play their best every time they take the field.
“We’re confident, with a little bit of swagger,” said senior rightfielder Matt Olson, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2009 Division III tournament after hitting .500 and scoring the winning run in the championship game. “Not cocky, but confident. We know we can go out and compete with the best teams in the nation, and that we have what it takes to win.”
All-American senior pitcher Matt Schuld, who set a school record with 12 wins last year, takes heart in the way St. Thomas kept bouncing back. Even though they lost 19-1 and 8-0 in the MIAC playoffs to St. Olaf, the Tommies received a bid to the NCAA regional playoffs because of their regular season conference title. They won three elimination games – including two over the Oles – and then won three more elimination games in the national tournament.
“It wasn’t just the fact that we won last year, but the way we won and how many times we had to come from behind,” Schuld said. “It’s already made a difference this year. We were down 3-0 (and 5-4) to St. Scholastica in the Metrodome but came back and won. We know what we have to do to win.”
Senior first baseman Tom Wippler is impressed – but not surprised – at how his teammates have handled adversity. “There’s almost less pressure because we know each other so well, and we trust each other,” he said.
High expectations can be intimidating, but the Tommies insist they concentrate on playing one game at a time. Their short-term goal is to win their eighth straight MIAC regular-season title and then take their chances in the NCAA playoffs. Along the way, they plan to have some fun.
“We know what we can do,” said senior closer Brandon Stone, who threw seven shutout innings to beat Wooster in the championship game. “We need to stay loose and play our game. Coach (Chris Olean) tells us, ‘If you play your game, you can win.’ ”
Olean likes to hear that kind of talk, just as he likes the early look of the veteran team that he inherited from recently retired Dennis Denning. And in case you thought otherwise, it doesn’t bother Olean to have those bulls-eyes on the Tommies’ backs.
“Every team is going to come at you hard because you are the national champs,” he said. “They want to knock you off. You have to use that as a plus – to know that every game you have to play well. It helps you keep your focus.”
As important as the national title was, Olean said, this is a new season.
“The first thing I told them was, ‘You are a new team and you have to do it all over again. You have to earn that No. 1 national ranking every time you go out there.
“We’re up for it.”