On March 17, NCAA Division III wrestlers took to the mat, lacing up their shoes, slipping on their knee pads and strapping on their headgear.
This daily routine for most wrestlers around the nation is a thing of the past for St. Thomas’ wrestling alumni and current students.
In 2000, the St. Thomas athletic department decided that the wrestling program was one of the teams that needed to go to cut costs.
Athletic Director Steve Fritz said the team struggled to gain interest among athletes. For Fritz and the athletic department, the decision to make numerous cuts within St. Thomas’ athletic programs was necessary.
“We faced a time when, as an institution, we needed to reduce budgets a lot of ways, so we had to purge a great amount of money out of our athletic program budget,” Fritz said. “It came down to whether you drop one program that was, in our mind, not doing well and struggling with the number of people involved and things like that, or to affect all your programs.”
Prior to the cuts, the wrestling program had its share of MIAC success.
Former wrestler and 1981 alumnus Todd Nelson said during its time, the program gave wrestlers an opportunity to shoot for success.
“It was an excellent program. It was top-notch,” Nelson said. “It was a bonus for a lot of young men, who were wrestlers, that needed a focus in school.”
Aside from the athletic skills the program taught its athletes, St. Thomas wrestling provided life skills after the mats were rolled up, former wrestler and 1981 alumnus Dave Heitkamp said.
“It created an opportunity for people to be able to manage their time as young adults and participate in something bigger than just themselves,” Heitkamp said. “It was another way to learn how to work as a team member and work toward a goal like you might have to do later on in life.”
In 1981, St. Thomas defeated the 10-time NCAA national champion Augsburg for the MIAC conference championship title, a first in school history. The Tommies were the only other team to clinch the title since 1975. In 1986, the team stepped up once again, adding a repeat conference championship to the record book. Then in 1991, Jason O’Brien won an individual national title, the only Tommie to do so. The Tommies went on to take third at the NCAA championships that year.
In his senior year and last season for the Tommies, Heitkamp said the 1981 conference victory couldn’t have come at a more fitting time.
“I felt very satisfied because we had butted heads for three years and we finally fought through,” Heitkamp said. “It felt like we finished the project we had started as freshmen.”
Nelson said wrestling is a sport that has been beneficial for its athletes since the earliest of times.
“It builds character and self-discipline,” Nelson said. “It’s a sport that has been going on since the beginning of human existence that has really helped a lot of young men to be better people.”
Looking ahead, Heitkamp said he would love to see the program return.
“I think it would be terrific for St. Thomas to reconsider whether or not they want to restart the program,” Heitkamp said. “It might not be a bad time to reconsider not only adding this athletic program but any other athletic programs that they eliminated in the past.”
Due to the lack of a proper facility, Fritz doesn’t see wrestling making a comeback in the immediate future.
“I don’t see it returning. Those kinds of decisions you would’ve had to made when you build a facility too, because we don’t have wrestling facilities anymore,” Fritz said. “Having a facility for wrestling is a very big part of it, so I know I don’t see it happening.”
Sophomore Matt O’Connell said having a wrestling program would be beneficial to the university on multiple fronts.
“It would definitely broaden what the university has to offer its students and would likely make St. Thomas more appealing,” O’Connell said. “With St. Thomas having a wrestling team in the past, the alumni support from former St. Thomas wrestlers may increase not only for wrestling and athletics, but for the university as a whole.”
Sean Crotty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.