Applause broke out in the football team’s locker room Sunday as the Tommies celebrated their No. 1 seed in the NCAA playoffs.
In its first-round game, St. Thomas (10-0) will host St. Norbert (8-2) at noon Saturday in O’Shaughnessy Stadium.
The Knights solidified their spot in the playoffs with a 20-10 win over conference foe Lake Forest, clinching the Midwest Conference’s automatic bid. This is St. Norbert’s ninth NCAA appearance in the last 14 years.
St. Thomas is one of three Minnesota teams to make the national tournament alongside Bethel and St. Scholastica. D3football.com predicted that Concordia-Moorhead would get an at-large bit, but the team came up short.
This isn’t the first time the Tommies have faced the Knights in recent years. St. Thomas won on both occasions: 40-7 in De Pere, Wis., in 2010 and 20-7 at home last year. Both games were season openers for both squads.
Linebacker Mike Valesano said he thought it will be nice to play an opponent the team has seen recently.
“We kind of know what their schemes are like,” Valesano said. “Usually in the playoffs, you’re not going to find a familiar opponent like that, so we’re fortunate.”
The Knights come into Saturday’s matchup riding a five-game win streak and are led by running back Austin Williams’ 797 rushing yards and five touchdowns and quarterback James Tringali’s 1,628 passing yards and 15 touchdowns.
Coach Glenn Caruso told his team he’s proud of its accomplishments thus far, but its “second season” begins Saturday.
Quarterback Matt O’Connell said he thinks it’s “vital” to focus on one week at a time.
“We’re 0-0 now and our 10-0 season doesn’t really matter anymore,” O’Connell said. “Every team is on equal ground and we’re looking to start the ‘second season’ off well.”
Caruso said the team will still follow its normal practice schedule ahead of Saturday’s duel and said the NCAA’s rule change from last year allowing six extra players in pads is “enormous.”
“Now we only need to trim two (players) off what our league roster is,” Caruso said. “It lets us take some reps off of our offensive and defensive starters.”
Much like the Tommies, the Knights are led by a strong defense; it finished third in the MWC’s total defense ranks. Linebacker Anthony Parker’s team-leading 56 tackles helped St. Norbert hold its opponents to 19.5 points per game. St. Thomas allows only 14.3 points per game.
The Tommies began watching film of Parker and the Knights Sunday after watching the NCAA selection show as a “family.”
Caruso said his team needs to stay focused on containing the Knights after their big win.
“They’re fighting right now,” Caruso said. “For them, last week was really a playoff game for them; they’ll be ready to go.”
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.