When men’s sports rivalries are discussed in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, several always are mentioned right away: St. John’s vs. St. Thomas, Concordia or Bethel in football and St. Thomas-Gustavus Adolphus in basketball.
But the best rivalry, at least over the last 15 years, may well be St. Thomas-St. Olaf in baseball, and on Saturday the MIAC’s elite teams will slug it out in Northfield with yet another championship at stake. St. Thomas and Concordia lead the conference at 13-5, trailed by St. Olaf and St. John’s at 12-6 and Augsburg at 11-7. Four of the five teams will qualify for the MIAC playoffs.
During the Dennis Denning-Matt McDonald coaching era from 1995 to 2009, the Tommies and Oles won 14 of 15 regular-season titles and all 10 playoff titles. St. Thomas won or shared 11 regular season and seven playoff titles to St. Olaf’s 4 and 3. In 50 games, the Tommies defeated the Oles 32-18 – 19-11 in regular season, 11-6 in conference playoffs and 2-1 in NCAA playoffs.
While those numbers favor St. Thomas, Coach Chris Olean says history doesn’t mean a whole lot when these two teams face each other on the diamond. He expects nothing less than a dogfight on Saturday.
“It’s hard to point out one thing about our rivalry,” he said. “We’re just very evenly matched teams. It will come down to who plays better baseball on Saturday, and more than likely they’ll turn out to be two very close games.”
“We have genuine, mutual respect for each other,” said McDonald, who is in his 16th year at St. Olaf and has a career record of 428-205 (.676). “It’s one of those classy rivalries built on respect and a history of good baseball. The guys play as hard as they can to win.”
Denning, who retired after the 2009 season, said he always expected close games against St. Olaf. He still remembers the 2000 MIAC playoff title game. The teams split during the regular season and faced each other three times in the double-elimination playoffs. The Tommies won the first game 4-1, lost the second one 13-8 and took the title game 2-1.
“Ninth inning, St. Olaf loads the bases with two outs against Mike Honsa,” Denning recalled. “He gets the strikeout to end the game.”
Other games weren’t as close. Last year, the teams split eight games. During the regular season, St. Thomas won 2-0 for Denning’s 500th career win and St. Olaf took the second game 9-7. The Tommies beat the Oles in the MIAC playoff opener 4-3 but then were shelled 19-1 and 8-0. Both teams advanced to the NCAA regional playoffs, where St. Olaf won 5-2 but St. Thomas bounced back with 11-2 and 5-0 wins on the final day to move on to – and win – the national tournament.
“Had we lost one of those (last two) games,” Olean said, “St. Olaf would have played in the World Series and would have had a good chance to go all the way, too. They had a veteran team. It came down to who was hot that day.”
McDonald, a 1989 St. Olaf graduate who played second base on MIAC championship teams his junior and senior year, recruited Olean out of Minneapolis Washburn. Olean recalls visiting St. Olaf but ultimately chose St. Thomas, wanting to be closer to home.
“Chris was a bulldog of a pitcher,” McDonald said of Olean, who was 24-8 in his St. Thomas career and won All-American honors as a senior, when the Tommies finished second in the nation. “He’s one of the best college pitchers I’ve ever seen. Without him, St. Thomas might not have jumped to national prominence right away.”
Now the former recruit will square off against the veteran coach. Neither team has clinched a conference playoff spot, so Saturday’s doubleheader (1 p.m. in Northfield) will be important. That’s no surprise to either coach, and they also wouldn’t be surprised if they both advance to the May 14-16 playoffs in Northfield and Dundas and play each other at least once.
St. Thomas-St. Olaf baseball, after all, is one of the best – if not the best – rivalries in the MIAC.