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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP)Sixteen months ago, as St. Thomas prepared to complete an unprecedented jump up in competition, one set of just-for-fun national power rankings pegged the Minnesota Catholic school as dead last among the 128 teams for its rookie season in the Football Championship Subdivision.

How’s this for a successful transition? Last week, the Tommies clinched at least a share of their conference championship. They’re 21st in the latest coaches poll with a 9-1 overall record.

”It’s honestly been awesome for us,” fifth-year safety Luke Glenna said. ”Every single week’s a challenge, with film study and practice and even the scout guys we’ve got now as a Division I university. We’ve got greater competition, and that helps us better prepare for better opponents.”

St. Thomas could not have found a more fitting place to play in the FCS than the Pioneer Football League, after the Tommies were ejected from their Division III conference of 100 years for a pattern of athletic dominance over most of their smaller rivals.

The PFL comprises like-minded institutions committed to non-scholarship Division I competition. Then there’s the name of the league itself, a literal description of the trailblazing move St. Thomas made two levels up the NCAA ladder.

”Every other part of our career when we’ve met a new challenge as a coach, you’re always able to call someone and say, `How did you handle this?’ Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said. ”There was no one to call. There was no road map. The only known commodity we had was who we were and what our culture was.”

Voted out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2019, the Tommies in 2021 became the first Division III school to move all their sports to Division I at once. They were granted an NCAA waiver to accelerate the reclassification process. The majority of their teams landed in the Summit League, which does not sponsor football.

Enter the PFL, which in its 30th season covers eight states from California (San Diego) to Florida (Stetson) to New York (Marist) and has an automatic bid for the FCS playoffs. The Ivy League, the only other non-scholarship FCS league, does not participate in the postseason.

North Carolina (Davidson), South Carolina (Presbyterian), Ohio (Dayton) and Kentucky (Morehead State) aren’t exactly down the street for UST, either, like a few MIAC foes were. The Tommies can bus to Iowa (Drake) or Indiana (Valparaiso and Butler), where they’re headed this weekend.

”To have that great an institution among our members just elevates everybody. We have a crazy geography, coast to coast. They’re right in the middle. They’re in a major market, so getting in and out for games is relatively easy,” PFL commissioner Patty Viverito said. ”It was just a really good fit on every level.”

After going 7-3 overall in 2021, the Tommies avenged both of their conference losses from last year: San Diego and Davidson. They’ve got a well-balanced offense behind quarterback Cade Sexauer, productive special teams and a dominant defense. They’re in the top 10 in the FCS in several categories, including scoring defense with an average of 17.6 points allowed per game. Nineteen different players have accounted for the team’s 46 total touchdowns.

There are still several contributing players on the roster, like Glenna, who picked St. Thomas for the Division III experience but have deftly handled the rise in competition.

The Tommies, Caruso said, haven’t changed their recruiting strategy all that much. The biggest difference is targeting a higher volume of players now that they’re vying for prospects with other FCS programs.

St. Thomas can’t go the playoffs until 2025, due to the NCAA’s probation period for Division I newcomers. The rationale behind the rule is to provide ample time to get up to speed with compliance, facilities and scholarships, a measure of protection for universities too quickly incurring more expenses than they’re equipped to handle.

The PFL won’t make the Tommies wait, though.

”Their trophy will be delivered. It’s being shipped as we speak,” Viverito said Wednesday. ”They have much to celebrate.”

If the Tommies beat Butler on Saturday, or if Davidson beats Dayton, they’ll win the title outright. If not, they’ll settle for a share. Either way, the Davidson-Dayton winner will get the league’s spot in the FCS playoffs.

”We’re just thankful for another opportunity to play again this Saturday,” Glenna said, ”and go out with a bang.”

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