The background info:
Deemed too good for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), the University of St. Thomas was involuntarily ejected from the MIAC on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. The Tommies were ousted from a conference they helped found in 1920, after MIAC school presidents met to make their final decision via a majority vote.
The local Catholic University in St. Paul was given two years to figure out their plans for the future, as they would have to leave the MIAC following the conclusion of the 19/20 school year. Immediately, speculation grew as to what was coming next for the Tommies. Rumors of becoming a non-conference university popped up, as well as the idea of joining the WIAC surfacing too; ultimately, the Tommies set their sights on a bigger and unprecedented opportunity.
Fast forward five months to October 5th, and St. Thomas announced their intentions to make the jump from Division-III athletics to Division-I; a jump that has never been made by any NCAA affiliated school.
St. Thomas had said in a statement that if their waiver for Division-I were to be approved by the NCAA, that their intentions would be to join the Summit League in 2021.
Fast forward again, to July of 2020, and the Tommies unprecedented ambition to jump from Division III Athletics to Division I, was approved by the NCAA. The Tommies were officially given the ability to not only fully prepare, but to be ready, to join the Summit League in the fall of 2021.
“St. Thomas is the first university that has been approved to transition directly to D-I from D-III in the modern history of the NCAA. This approval recognizes St. Thomas’ growing reputation and academic and athletic success and will help us expand our mission and impact beyond Minnesota,” St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said in a statement on July 15. “With this news, we enthusiastically accept invitations to join the Summit League for 19 of our 22 sports, as well as the Pioneer Football League and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) women’s league. We also are excited about conference options for our men’s hockey program.”
What’s the big deal? How does this impact local MN soccer?
With the Tommies now having confirmation from the NCAA to join the Summit League in the fall of 2021, they can now move forward into a new era of academics, athletics and excellence. For Men’s soccer however, this jump from D-III to D-1 begins a new era of top-level competitive soccer in Minnesota. The Tommies will now be home to the only Division-I men’s soccer program in the state of Minnesota.
“This is a huge opportunity for St. Thomas, both academically and athletically, going D-I.” St. Thomas men’s soccer head coach Jon Lowery said. “There are so many kids unfamiliar with St. Thomas, we have opportunities of growth on every level. From a men’s soccer perspective, it’s something that’s never happened in the state of Minnesota before. It’s exciting for us all.”
The Tommie men’s soccer program has been a consistent contender on a national level since the arrival of Lowery, a former pro himself, in April of 2012. Lowery has won a multitude of awards since arriving at St. Thomas, including D-III national coach of the year in 2016, regional coaching staff of the year in 2016 and 2017 and MIAC coach of the year in 2019. He boasts a 112-36-18 record as the head coach of the Tommies.
Lowery’s excitement for a D-I program is warranted, as Minnesota now has a local option for talented youth players who have escaped through the cracks of the system. Notable names who have progressed from youth soccer in Minnesota to the national stage are current San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Jackson Yueill and former Villarreal B team player Mukwelle Akale - both Akale and Yueill played together on the same team with the Minnesota Thunder Academy in 2015.
“This move isn’t only huge for high school kids who are heading to college, but it presents an opportunity for kids of all ages,” Lowery said. “These younger kids now have an opportunity to come and watch local Division-I men’s soccer, which I think will be both influential and fun for them -and there are still the other MIAC schools - they play some really competitive and great soccer too.”
Wait - what’s the Summit League? Who will they play?
The Tommies will join the Summit League competing against the likes of Oral Roberts, Western Illinois, Denver, Omaha, and Eastern Illinois. Notably, Denver has produced Major League Soccer’s most recent rookie of the year - Colorado Rapids standout: Andre Shinyashiki.
“The competition will be great for us,” Lowery said. “It’ll help us reach those larger markets and help us bring in kids who are a fit St. Thomas both academically and athletically.”
St. Thomas will now join the “elite” men’s soccer programs in Minnesota, joining the likes of the Shattucks St. Mary’s Academy in Faribault and the Minnesota United FC academy in developing local talent that can and want to play at a higher level than Division-III. Shattucks St. Mary’s recently joined Major League Soccer’s development academy with their U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-19 boy’s teams following the COVID-19 related closure of the U.S. Soccer development academy, which closed its doors on April 19th.
Minnesota United FC shut down their academy due to financial complications from COVID-19 in June, but a source has informed E Pluribus Loonum that the brief hiatus of youth productivity within the club will be addressed soon, with a “new and improved” youth-development system to be announced by the Loons in the coming weeks.
The Tommies have only played in Division-III for men’s soccer, but Lowery does not see the jump as a massive challenge for St. Thomas; rather, the University’s athletes and coaches are embracing this new challenge.
“One thing I don’t think people realize is that we don’t need to change to compete. We’ve got great coaches, great facilities and great athletes all-around. We’re ready for this transition and we’re ready to compete.”
Lowery says that the continuing growth of men’s and women’s soccer is a massive positive for the state and that with Minnesota now finally having a Division-I men’s program, Minnesota has a real opportunity to become a soccer powerhouse in the midwest, and eventually, the U.S.
“Minnesota is really becoming a soccer state, and I think that’s something people are starting to realize, which is awesome to see. There’s a lot to be excited about.”