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St. Thomas president says Tommies move to Summit League, DI athletics 'right thing at the right time'

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St. Thomas is set to join the Summit League in 2021-2022 as it moves from NCAA Division III to Division I. Forum file photo

ST. PAUL — St. Thomas University president Julie Sullivan was halfway around the world when she first learned it might be feasible for her school’s athletic department to make the move from NCAA Division III to Division I.

Sullivan was in Botswana, a country located in the southern part of Africa, with her husband last July when she received an email from St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten.

“It’s a moment I will never forget in my entire lifetime,” Sullivan said.

In that email, Esten relayed a discussion with Summit League commissioner Tom Douple in which there could be a path for the conference to consider St. Thomas and vice versa.

“Up until that moment, I didn’t hold out any hope that path was even a possibility,” Sullivan said Thursday, July 16, during a video conference. “It’s been a long year since then, but it’s been worth every moment of it.”

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The Tommies are slated to join the Summit League for the 2021-2022 school year after the NCAA on Wednesday granted St. Thomas an unprecedented waiver to move directly from Division III to Division I.

“This is the right thing at the right time for St. Thomas,” Sullivan said.

“This move is a bold move,” Double said. “It’s an aggressive move.”

St. Thomas will remain in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for 2020-2021 for it’s final school year in Division III. The Tommies will be on Summit League schedules starting in the fall of 2021, starting their five-year Division I transition. They won’t be eligible for the NCAA postseason until the end of that transition.

“When you look at the trajectory frankly of the Summit League, I think it kind of mirrors similar to the trajectory (that) the University of St. Thomas has been on,” Esten said. “It’s an upwards mobility trajectory.”

In addition, St. Thomas is joining the Pioneer Football League, which is a non-scholarship FCS conference. The Tommies women’s hockey program is set to join the WCHA. PFL commissioner Patty Viverito and WCHA women’s commissioner Jennifer Flowers were also part of Thursday’s video conference.

“We know that St. Thomas fits perfectly,” said Viverito, who is also the league commissioner for the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

St. Thomas is slated to become the 10th full-time Summit League member and is expected to make scheduling easier in sports like men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball. Douple said travel partners are going to be set up for sports like basketball and volleyball. He anticipates in the next couple weeks to put together a five-year scheduling plan for when St. Thomas joins the Summit League.

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“We’ll have a travel partner for all our sports that have 10,” Douple said. “We have some models already produced and ready to go. … We did consider travel in all of our schedules that we produced. I think that’s the key. We have to be fiscally responsible, but also try to get the right travel partners, as well.”

In 2021-2022, the full-time Summit League members will include: Denver, Kansas City, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, St. Thomas, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois.

St. Thomas, located in St. Paul, will become the second full-time Division I athletic department in the state, along with the University of Minnesota.

“We are extremely excited to add St. Thomas to our league,” Douple said. “We have 40,000 alumni from the Summit League schools that live in the Twin Cities. We hope to engage them in the future.”

St. Thomas will have eight Pioneer League Football games when it joins the conference in 2021. Esten said the school is working to add three nonconference dates.

“We’ve got to hustle to put together a 2021 schedule,” Esten said. “There are not a lot of openings in 2021. … At some point, we will be open to playing some of those Missouri Valley Football Conference schools. I do look forward to filling our schedule with a few of those really nice regional competition opportunities, as well.”

Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.
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