If you’ve never been to a women’s volleyball game at the University of Minnesota, you can expect it before it starts: Noise. Lots of it. Loud, pulsating music accompanies the player’s introductions, while the highlights of the match stream on the video table high above the pitch.
It’s more pumping up the Maturi Pavilion crowd than generating the opposing team. But last Thursday night at the Diet Coke Classic, freshman Lauren Galvin from St. Thomas the pompo and bombast to get to her. It was not so long ago when Galvin, then part of the reputable Northern Lights club program, sat in the stands at Pav and messed with Gophers, dreaming of playing on the pitch below. Now she was, but on the wrong side of the net, and in purple and gray instead of maroon and gold.
Galvin and her teammates opened their eyes to the surroundings, smiled nervously at each other and were ready to play. Galvin threw the ball high, jumped for serving and hit it solidly – but too long. The first point in the first Division I match between Tommies and Gophers belonged to Minnesota.
It did most of the rest.
No one expected a disruption in the first regular meeting between Minnesota and St. Louis. Thomas since the NCAA let the Tommies jump directly from Division III to Division I. Although both DI in name, Minnesota and St. Thomas is not an athletics peer by any reasonable measure. Power Five Vs. mid-major. An athletics budget of $ 123 million (Gophers) versus about $ 15 million (Tommies). But geography and convenience suggest that the two largest universities in the twin cities will and should play each other whenever possible, although the results predominantly favor Gophs.
A rivalry must start somewhere, and this went exactly as expected on Thursday night. The nationally ranked Gophers sent undersized and newly graduated St. Thomas in just over an hour and won 25-14, 25-8, 25-7.
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon gave four-time all-American Stephanie Samedy and two other regulars the night off, but Minnesota still dominated. St. Thomas made some great plays here and there, but never led at any point. The noisy amount announced at 5,386 with around 1,000 no-shows was still greater than any Tommies have ever played before. It took a little getting used to.
“It was definitely a little nerve-wracking at first, but I think we eventually got over it,” said Galvin, a 10-foot-10 outside hitter from Woodbury. “I think we hung in there a bit in the first set. Really, we were like, ‘OK, yeah, this is not as scary as we thought it would be.’ “
Expect to see more of these matches between Gophers and Tommies over the next few years, as St. and occasionally non-conference in certain others.
Economically, these make the most sense in non-income sports to limit travel and missed class time. The women’s soccer team faced each other in a showdown on August 14, and the Tommies will compete Friday at the U’s Roy Griak Invitational in cross country. Gophs and Tommies met occasionally in baseball, while St. Thomas was still Division III when U sought out midweek games to develop underclasses. Look for it to resume, with some also in softball.
But income sports are a different story. The men’s and women’s basketball team may be playing, though not this season, and probably exclusively at the Williams Arena or Target Center.
But football? Forget it. Betting against non-scholarship programs does not count toward bowl eligibility, so Gophers does not plan Tommies unless St. Thomas is upgrading from the Pioneer Football League to one that allows scholarships.
“For me, I would like to think over time that we are starting to establish traditions, much like what happened [Thursday] night with volleyball, ”said St. Thomas Athletics Director Phil Esten, who once worked as an associate AD at U. “The very best traditions in my experience are not forced. They happen organically. So there is nothing important enough that we can force right away. ”
In volleyball, it started with McCutcheon approaching St. Thomas on the Diet Coke Classic. McCutcheon knew Thanh Pham, the reputable Tommies coach, and St. Thomas assistants Joy Tietz and David Gasner previously worked on McCutcheon’s staff.
McCutcheon thinks broadly about volleyball. He has lobbied the Minnesota State High School League to add boys’ volleyball to his interscholastic program, and he considers another DI program in the state a plus, increasing the state’s interest and attracting more children to the sport. He also likes that it gives Gophers a break from their usual gloves of ranked non-conference opponents.
“There is more of an altruistic purpose to this than predicting RPI [rankings] or something, ”McCutcheon said. “We think it’s the right thing to do … Maybe it keeps more Minnesota athletes at home. It definitely gives them more options. This is an example, I think, where more is more. ”
Pham welcomed the opportunity at a time when all of St. Thomas coaches struggled to fill their non-conference plans. The NCAA approved the Tommies’ Division I move in July 2020, forcing them to plan from scratch. What the school’s volleyball team ended up with was not ideal: It opened with tournaments in Wisconsin, Texas and New York. The Diet Coke Classic matches with Gophs and Iowa State (another loss of three sets) were their first in Minnesota. 1-9 Tommies first play on campus Sept. 30.
“We are not at the point where we are beating the top ten in the country and trying to get to a Final Four,” said Pham, who coached the Tommies to the 2012 NCAA Division III title and 453 wins over 19 seasons. “We are definitely in the making. If the University of Minnesota finds it valuable to play us, we would very much like to play them. For us, this is a huge opportunity for us and we enjoy every chance we can get with it. ”
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