Tommies win as a team

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St. Thomas has a strong title game defensively, limiting Benedictine guards John Dodson, Tahron Harvey and Michael Blaszczyk to 11-for-32 shooting.
Photo by Jamie Wilson,

By Ryan Scott

SALEM, Va. -- Winning a championship always takes hard work and preparation, but rarely does a championship team exhibit the kind of calm and confidence we saw in St. Thomas, which handed Benedictine its first loss of the season 82-76 to secure their second national championship in six years.

Part of that comes from head coach John Tauer who also serves as a tenured professor of psychology at the university and knows a thing or two about mental preparation and performance. But it also comes from having six seniors on the roster providing the leadership and experience necessary to win a title.

“It’s getting them to believe that their optimal performance will be when they do feel calm, cool, and collected,” said Tauer, “Sometimes I probably overwhelm them talking about the sympathetic nervous system and homeostasis, but it’s designed to get them to understand all we ask them to do is play to their day-to-day capabilities. Nothing should change from practice to a game.”

This mindset is epitomized on the floor by junior point guard, Grant Shaeffer. “I take pride in being the leader of this team, whether it’s getting a bucket down the stretch, getting the ball to one of my guys, or grabbing someone and looking them in the eye and telling them to calm down, I take pride in that.”

Shaeffer is nominally the scoring leader. Although no Tommie has averaged more than 15 points per game in eight years, but four players on this team average either 13 or 14. His coach describes him as the ultimate leader, “He was a two-time state champ as a quarterback at Eden Prairie High School, the largest in Minnesota. That epitomizes what he did for us. [The seniors] embraced Grant being the one who grabs guys by the jersey.”

Still, on this night, Shaeffer took a back seat to the seniors, specifically Taylor Montero, who scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and Ryan Saarela, who overcame severe foul trouble in the semifinal to score 26, grab 10 rebounds and limit the impact of Benedictine’s Lucas Johnson, the National Player of the Year.

“I wanted to come out aggressive. I was really well rested. My teammates and coaches believe in me and put me in a great spot,” said Saarella.

Montero, who was named Most Outstanding Player of championship weekend, scored 41 points in these two games, including largely taking over the final on both ends of the floor. He clearly understood the importance on his last college game and, having been a freshman on St. Thomas’ last Salem squad, understood the pitfalls that could easily derail a championship. He said, “It was good to not be caught up in the first time experience here.”

St. Thomas has shot better than 40 percent from deep on the season, but was held to just two 3-point field goals in two games, a credit to the perimeter defense employed by Christopher Newport on Friday and Benedictine in the final. This provided opportunity for Saarela and the post players to lead the way.

With Saarela on the bench Friday, little used senior Cullen Ogren had career highs with 10 points and eight rebounds, including two boards, four points, and a steal during St. Thomas’ 10-0 run to close out the first half and, ultimately secure them a spot in the championship.

“Cullen had one of the most inspiring performances I’ve ever seen,” said Tauer, “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever coached. For him to come out in a final four game like that it really defines our team.”

After struggling in the national semifinals, Ryan Saarela picked it up in the title game, to the tune of 26 points and 10 rebounds.
Photo by Jamie Wilson,

This is the story of this Tommie team. There is no drama, just disciplined, meticulous teamwork and immense trust. They needed every bit of it in the final. Benedictine led the nation in rebound margin and was third in scoring margin, plus they were one of the few teams with a collection of post players to rival St. Thomas. The Tommies hit the glass with passion and won the rebound battle 36-32. “I told the guys,” said Tauer, “If we won the rebound battle we would win the game.”

St. Thomas had a 12-point lead with nine minutes to go. This is typical St. Thomas basketball, but usually their tenacity and discipline extends the lead and breaks the will of an opponent. Benedictine didn’t relent; the Eagles fought back to get within two points at 73-71 on a dunk from Johnson with 90 seconds remaining. Still, the Tommies remained calm, hit their free throws and cut down the nets.

A national title is a fitting end for the storied careers of Montero, Saarela, Ogren, Cortez Tillman, Thomas Sjoberg, and Jimmy Remke whose class earned 106 victories – tying the mark of the senior class that won St. Thomas’ first championship in 2011. But basketball, especially in Division III is about preparing players for the rest of their lives and the character and commitment of the Tommies is what people will remember most from this run.

“There’s a piece of my heart that goes with these guys,” said Tauer, “Because they’re as good a group of seniors as I’ll ever coach.” This is best epitomized in the story of a young Tommie fan with a difficult background the team decided to fly to Salem so he could experience the championship along with the team. “They flew a seven year old out here on their own money,” explains Tauer, “Because that’s the kind of people they are. They said we can’t do this without him. He’s got to be there.”

St. Thomas wins basketball games, they won the NCAA championship, because they played together. None of these guys were on the All-America teams – not because they don’t have the talent, but because they chose a system that demands they sacrifice individual achievement for team glory.

This year, that sacrifice paid off in ways they’ll never forget.