For 14 St. Thomas seniors, Saturday’s 12-7 loss to Bethel was their last game in purple and white.
An emotional coach Glenn Caruso, who sat with seniors Tommy Becker and Bryan Villar at the post-game press conference, choked back tears when asked about what he said to his team after the game.
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“I told them I love them, and as always when we lose it’s very important not to lose the lesson,” Caruso said. “It hurts because of the love and brothership that they have created. This pain, although very deep right now, is in some ways verification that what they have created here is very, very special.”
Three years ago, Caruso took over a 2-8 team in desperate need of a change. He brought a passion with him that has sparked new life into a St. Thomas football program that accomplished things this season no other Tommie football team ever has.
“I think probably 100 different staffs could have come in and turned this thing around,” Caruso said. “But I don’t think it could have been turned around without our seniors. I told them that even though you’re not going to see it today, that eventually there will be some sort of solace and pride in your heart that what you left behind is greater than what you had when you got here.”
This year’s seniors left behind a season of firsts. Saturday’s loss was the first and only loss of St. Thomas’ season. Its 10-0 regular season finish was the first in school history, and its undisputed MIAC conference title was the first since 1983. The Tommies were also the No. 1 seed in the regional for the first time ever, and the team’s 12-1 record is the best any St. Thomas football team has ever posted.
“When I look back on it, it’s been an unbelievable ride,” Villar said. “We’re a tight-knit unit, and it’s been a blast.”
Bethel rushing attack was too much
The Tommie defense came into Saturday’s game holding opponents to about 11 points per game. The defense gave up only 12 points to Bethel, but the Royals rushed for 287 yards on a defense that allowed an average of 100 rushing yards per game.
“If you would have asked people, ‘Would you be able to be successful if the defense was to hold them to 12 points?’ I think we all would have been comfortable with that,” Caruso said.
With a 7-0 lead, the Tommies were able to stop Bethel’s offense early, even intercepting one of junior Josh Aarke’s four passes. St. Thomas hit a rough patch midway through the second quarter when a costly face mask penalty led to senior Logan Flannery’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Flannery, the 2010 MIAC Most Valuable Player, rushed 38 times for 200 yards and one touchdown and became the MIAC’s all-time leading rusher with Saturday’s performance. Flannery has now had more than 100 rushing yards in his last five games.
“He’s got a great offensive line in front of him and a great scheme,” Becker said. “I believe his heart is pretty big. He’s not going to go down on the first hit, and he’s got an unbelievable spin move as well.”
Flannery’s dominance became apparent in the second half when he rushed for 129 of his 200 yards. On Bethel’s first drive of the second half, Flannery led the Royals on an 11-play, 96-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard Aarke touchdown. Aarke rushed 12 times for 18 yards, and Lindh added 62 yards on nine carries.
“Bethel executed very well, and when they needed to make a couple of big plays, they made them,” Caruso said.
For the Tommie defense, Becker had 10 solo and 10 assisted tackles. Junior Willy Baregi added a sack and five tackles of his own.
Before the game even started, the Tommies lost one of their star players. Senior running back Ben Wartman, an All-American, was scratched due to injury. Wartman, the all-time leader in touchdowns for the Tommies, was injured in last week’s playoff game and had been battling nagging injuries prior to that. He closed his career with 50 touchdowns, 21 100-yard rushing games and 4,086 rushing yards.
“It was a situation where he wasn’t available to us,” Caruso said. “Had it been an emergency situation, possibly he could have gone in, but we knew going in it was a scenario where he wasn’t healthy.”
St. Thomas lost another one of its stars just minutes into the game when junior wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel suffered a hip injury and was unable to return. Waldvogel, the Tommies’ leading receiver, caught only one pass for six yards, but the reception tied a school career record of 217. Losing Waldvogel caused the Tommies to tweak their game plan a little, Caruso said, but much of the credit should go to the Bethel defense.
“They came in expecting it to be a battle,” Caruso said. “When we ended up going up early, I think there was a little bit of a feeling upon the other sideline of ‘Oh, this again.’ But hats off to them for withstanding that and coming back.”
The injury to Waldvogel may have been a contributing factor to the Tommies’ lackluster offense performance. Junior quarterback Dakota Tracy completed just seven of 18 passes for 54 yards, and Bethel out-gained St. Thomas 305 yards to 220 yards. Junior Colin Tobin was the bright spot for St. Thomas, rushing for 122 yards on 28 carries and one touchdown.
Bethel has won three consecutive playoff games on the road and will travel to Alliance, Ohio, to take on Mount Union in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals.
Ryan Shaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.