Before freshman Taylor Montero graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall high school last spring, multiple Division II and some small Division I schools offered him men’s basketball scholarships. But ultimately, Montero made the decision to play on the Division III St. Thomas team for its atmosphere and competitive program.
“I felt like the basketball team was a big family and Coach (John) Tauer was kind of like the dad,” Montero said. “He’s just a great guy, and it’s a D-III school. He’s not doing it for the money. He just wants to coach and be a great guy.”
Montero is one of seven winter sport athletes at St. Thomas who graduated from Cretin-Derham in St. Paul, located 2.6 miles from the university. Former Raider athletes are the most highly-represented high school among St. Thomas’ winter sports, a fact that Montero said doesn’t only have to do with proximity.
“A lot of older Cretin-Derham kids that graduated, they’ve had such success here,” Montero said. “I kind of want to be like Tommy (Hannon) and John (Nance) since they’re having such a successful career. I want to do what they’re doing.”
Seniors Hannon and Nance are two Cretin-Derham graduates who helped the St. Thomas men’s basketball team capture its first national championship in the 2010-2011 season. They have also been leaders in posting a 12-0 record and a program second-best No. 1 national ranking so far this season.
“I didn’t want to go to a school where winning a national championship wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to go to a school that was going to be decent,” Montero said. “I wanted to go to a school that was going to be great and that I could contribute to.”
Three other freshmen men’s basketball players made a similar decision to Montero upon graduating from Cretin-Derham last spring. Kevin Hannon, Cortez Tillman and Shaye Fields also traded in their purple and gold jerseys for purple and white ones.
Cretin-Derham’s athletic director Jodi Loblein-Lecker said St. Thomas appears to be a popular school not only for Raider athletes, but the high school’s other students as well.
“I think it’s a combination of being a great academic school, Catholic university, they have strong programs, beautiful facilities and have reputable programs,” Loblein-Lecker said “Those things all combined together make for a really strong reason as to why students not only from Cretin-Derham, but other high schools as well, look to go to St. Thomas.”
Among the rest of the university’s winter sport athletes, other top high schools making up the St. Thomas athletic programs include: Eden Prairie (4), Maple Grove (4), Eagan (4) and Edina, Wayzata and Hill-Murray all contributing three.
Eden Prairie athletic director and football coach Mike Grant said one reason he thinks St. Thomas is an attractive option for his athletes is because it’s hard to ignore the Tommies’ competitive spirit.
“We win a lot of games here because our kids are so competitive,” Grant said. “I think St. Thomas has been very competitive and that’s an attraction for our students too, with the outstanding athletic programs they’ve had there.”
With St. Thomas’ 178 total men’s and women’s hockey, men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s and women’s basketball athletes, seven may not seem like a strong number, but athletic director Steve Fritz said it makes sense when looking at the makeup of the university’s 10,316 students.
“I think if you look at our rosters in total, and you look at our student body, they tend to come from the same places,” Fritz said. “The Eden Prairie’s, Totino-Grace’s, Cretin’s, a lot of the big publics, like Wayzata and all of that, tend to be our leading feeder schools both for athletics and for the institution itself.
“And D-III, that’s really what it should be, that your athletes and students are coming from the same pool of students overall.”
Of St. Thomas’ 178 winter sport athletes, about 48 hail from outside Minnesota, a number Fritz attributed to the university’s location, the recent burst in the athletic programs’ success and the recruiting processes.
“I think the Twin Cities area is a very popular place to go to school … We have good facilities, we have good coaches and we have winning programs,” Fritz said. “I think that’s going to be attractive to most student athletes.”
Fritz said often, coaches have connections to high schools in different parts of the country and that can also play a role in the athletes’ diversity.
“Maybe the coach knows somebody or has maybe had success with those schools so they keep in contact with those schools,” Fritz said. “It isn’t like we spend a ton of time in California or a ton of time in Florida.”
Places like Wisconsin, where the most of the out-of-state student athletes come from (13), Iowa (12) and Illinois (3) often feed the most athletes, but more rare locations, such as New Jersey, Washington and Missouri (all with one) sprinkle themselves throughout St. Thomas’ rosters, too.
Fritz said students often come from those locations without any major connections because high school coaches have recommended the school, or they have seen athletes in the past go through St. Thomas.
“When you’re as popular as we are and in a metro area … they’ve recognized that this might be a good opportunity for kids,” Fritz said.
However, when looking at a comparable academic system 80 miles from St. Thomas, St. John’s and St. Benedict are also posting comparable out-of-state athlete numbers despite being well outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.
Of St. John’s and St. Ben’s 220 winter sport athletes (with help from St. John’s wrestling program’s 45 men), the universities total 40 out-of-state athletes, eight less than St. Thomas’ total.
While St. Thomas’ men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams are comprised of the most out-of-state-athletes (11 men’s, eight women’s), for St. Ben’s and St. John’s, men’s basketball takes the crown with 11 followed by wrestling’s nine.
However, St. Ben’s and St. John’s come up with a wider range of states where their winter athletes are from. California, Nevada, Alaska, Texas and Ohio all are present on Johnnie and Blazer rosters.
Fritz said selling a D-III program to out-of-state students can be tough, but when you look at St. Thomas’ recent athletic success, it helps a great deal.
“Most kids do want to be a part of successful programs, and there’s a lot of places offering scholarships that maybe aren’t that successful,” Fritz said. “There’s a reality that you also have to go to school when you go to those places, so this is a great area.”
Briggs LeSavage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.