University of St Thomas Taking the Plunge into Division I, Together

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Photo Courtesy: Mike Ekern | University of St. Thomas

The University of St Thomas swimming and diving program knows what it is like to make history in the pool and in the classroom under Scott Blanchard. Now, the Tommies will have their name in the history books for another reason: becoming the first institution in recent NCAA history to reclassify directly from Division III to Division I.

For the swimming and diving team at the University of St. Thomas, there is nothing more important than family.

“We have a deep, rich history of having a really strong family culture within this program,” said head coach Scott Blanchard. “The reason why we put so much focus into building a family is if you’re going to experience success during your four years at an institution, you have to have a support system.”

The support system and family atmosphere Blanchard and his staff cultivate will be crucial as the Tommies embark on their next journey together: transitioning from Division III to Division I.

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Two University of St Thomas teammates celebrate after a race. Photo Courtesy: Liam Doyle

On July 15, the NCAA’s Division I Council approved a motion granting the University of St. Thomas to make the jump. The decision, which will go into effect at the start of the 2021-22 season, marks the first program in the modern NCAA era to reclassify directly from Division III to Division I.

“It is quite an honor to be part of that history. We are definitely humbled by this opportunity to reclassify directly, and one of the things we talked about was trying to continue the proud history the swim and dive team has moving forward. It’s pretty exciting stuff,” said Blanchard, who is entering his sixth year as the head of the program.

The University of St. Thomas has grown from a small, liberal arts all-male college to a comprehensive, co-ed university with a vibrant campus in St. Paul, Minnesota. As the school of 10,000 students continues to evolve, the transition to Division I aligns with the university’s mission of comprehensive excellence.

“Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to create conditions for success so our student-athletes can pursue and achieve excellence in the classroom, in the community, in building character and, of course, in competition,” said St. Thomas Athletic Director Dr. Phil Esten. “We’ve done that really well at the Division III level and my intention is to continue doing that at Division I.”

St. Thomas will soon become the state’s only private Division I school and will join the University of Minnesota as just the second institution at the highest tier of collegiate sport in the gopher state. With many changes coming their way as they make the switch, the Tommies are eager to continue sharing all they have to offer.

“One of the things we really are hoping for as a result of this is the ability to be able to tell our story more broadly than just across the state of Minnesota or across the region of the Upper Midwest,” Dr. Esten said. “The opportunity to extend our brand and tell our story is certainly one of the intended outcomes of reclassifying to Division I.”

And the Tommies’ story is already nothing short of successful.

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University of St Thomas swept the MIAC Championships in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Mike Ekern

Since Scott Blanchard assumed the role of head coach in 2014, the Tommies have experienced unprecedented success. The men have posted 11-consecutive top-two finishes at the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Championships while the women clinched their first-ever conference crown in 2016, repeating as champions the following three years.

But their accomplishments do not end at the conference level, as they have also had an emerging presence on the national stage. Blanchard developed the school’s first-ever NCAA champion in Emma Paulson, who won three gold medals in 2016 (50 free, 100 back, 200 back) to guide the Tommies to a program-high 13th place. Behind a pair of All-American finishes from Mike Lanz (100, 200 fly), the men also registered a school-best 15th place in 2016.

Just as St. Thomas has experienced success in the pool, they have also performed exceptionally well in the classroom.

This past season, 21 Tommie swimmers and divers were named to the MIAC All-Academic Team for having a cumulative grade point average of 3.50 or better. The program has had three CoSIDA All-Americans in the past six years and have been honored as CSCAA Academic All-Americans each year Blanchard has been at the helm.

“From an academic standpoint, I’m a pretty demanding head coach. Making sure that you are able to get the success you want post-college is a high priority for me,” said Blanchard, the four-time MIAC Swimming Coach of the Year. “I’m endlessly proud of the academic achievements of these kids.”

With a long history of academic and athletic success at the Division III level, there is no doubt the Tommies will continue their high-achieving tendencies at the next stage.

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Scott Blanchard watches his University of St. Thomas swimmers compete. Photo Courtesy: Mike Ekern

“We’ve become a very regular contender, if not champion, of our conference over the last several years,” said Dr. Esten, who is a graduate of St. Thomas himself. “We are a highly-competitive team at this level in this region of the country, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue that at the Division I level.”

After competing in the MIAC for one final season, the St. Thomas swimming and diving program will call the Summit League home in 2021. They will find themselves competing against Denver, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Valparaiso, and Nebraska-Omaha.

“Scott Blanchard has done a fantastic job of building the program that we have today at the Division III level. He has come in and very quickly built a culture that expects excellence,” Dr. Esten said. “I know he can build a program that competes in the Summit League. If you’re among the best in the Summit League, you’re going to find yourself competing nationally too.”

As they enter their last year in Division III, Blanchard is ready for his team’s sendoff in the MIAC and seeks to solidify the relationships they have built over the last 100 years within the conference. Despite the many unknowns and uncertainties this upcoming season holds, the Tommies have every intention to go out on a high note.

“From a coaches’ standpoint, I want to win it all. I want to go out on top on both sides at the conference championships,” Blanchard said. “Regardless of whatever the outcome is, we’re still going to go out there and do everything we can to put ourselves in the best position, and we’re going to do it together.”

Even though the world of college athletics may view St. Thomas differently now as they move to Division I, the Tommies are committed to their core values of being family-forward, academically focused, and athletically driven during this transitional period.

“One of the things that will benefit the swimmers and divers with this move is that we’ll have more resources and time available to us so when we’re in the pool, and we can really be focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Blanchard.

“I have an incredible group of student-athletes right now that are really excited about the opportunity, and I can’t wait to have them lead us into this next chapter.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Carl and Nancy Samuelson

    Congratulations to you and your teams!! Wonderfull article. We wish you the best!! the Sams

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