FARGO - The newest kids on the Division I block may soon get a major schedule upgrade.
St. Thomas will officially become a D-I school next July and when that happens become a member of the Pioneer League. The Tommies will be guaranteed eight conference games a season, but it's those other three games that can become intriguing for local college football fans.
"St Thomas is popping up in our scheduling software now. They're right down the road, and with the impact of COVID-19 you're going to see a lot more regional scheduling. The opportunity to play a local school, St. Thomas can bus here, we can bus there. It makes a lot of sense for all the Dakota schools to play them." North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen said.
St. Thomas' new league stretches from New York to California. So the opportunity to stay close to home for some of its games is definitely appealing.
"We'll enjoy eight Pioneer League games, but those non-conference games will be a mix of games like the Dakota schools. We're open to play the Missouri Valley Football schools, and I look forward to filling our schedule with those regional opportunities down the road." St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten said.
The Dakota schools have a range of openings on their future schedules. North Dakota State has openings in 2022 and 2023. South Dakota State and South Dakota have openings in 2023. North Dakota has its non-conference schedules filled thru 2025, but a potential opening could come before that.
As far as its new league, the Pioneer is run by Patty Viverito. She says she got some initial blowback from her schools about the addition of the Tommies.
"I had a conversation with someone in the Pioneer League, we can't take St. Thomas, they're going to be too good." Viverito said. The Tommies have a had dominant run in Division III over the last decade, winning six MIAC championships in the last decade. They'll enter a conference where one team has been dominant for the last several years. The University of San Diego has won six straight league championships and has not lost a conference game in four years.
There has been some rumors tied with the Tommies move to Division I that the Pioneer League was just a brief rest stop for St. Thomas before an eventual move to the FCS best Missouri Valley Football Conference. Esten said the university is focused on its new football league.
"We are so excited about the Pioneer League. We have not thought about that, the Pioneer is the right fit for us."