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Reusse: Growing from failure pushes St. Thomas women toward success

St. Thomas had lost its position of MIAC strength in women's basketball when athletic director Steve Fritz hired Ruth Sinn from Apple Valley High School to take over in 2005.

There were a couple of rebuilding seasons, and then the Tommies tied for the MIAC title in 2007-08 and were back on their usual righteous path.

The Tommies and Sinn had a 10-season run from 2010 to 2021 with a record of 250-31 in Division III. And now, coach, for your next assignment, we present Division I competition and the Summit League, which at the top has been more prominent in women's basketball than any sport.

Sinn's time with the Tommies went back to playing her freshman season of 1980-81 in the "Hot Box,'' the cramped, wonderful third-floor gym in the old O'Shaughnessy athletic building.

There have been two versions of Schoenecker Arena since then, and the plan is to replace the current D3-sized arena with a larger one that will be the site for both hockey and basketball games.

You could call a new 5,000-seat arena a game-changer for the Tommies, yet Sinn's program already has proven to be dramatically more competitive in Season 3 than when this all started in 2021-22.

"We were competing with 18-year-olds against great programs like South Dakota and South Dakota State that had fourth- and fifth-year standouts," Sinn said.

"We have more juniors and seniors now. We have made it to the middle. The goal would be competing at the top of this league.

"There are now two Division I programs in Minnesota. I think Dawn [Plitzuweit] with the Gophers and I are both looking at all the great young players in this state and saying, 'If we can keep most of them home, we're going to be very good.'"

Sinn was able to get both Iowa State and Wisconsin to come to St. Paul for games this season. The results were decisive losses, which wasn't all bad in the coach's view.

"Embrace failures; chase excellence; grow from it,'' Sinn said. "That's the attitude I've seen from our players."

The Tommies were 20-38 overall and 11-25 in the Summit in the first two DI seasons. They are now 12-9 overall, 4-3 in the conference, and play home games — Thursday night, Saturday at noon — against Omaha and Kansas City.

The best win so far was 73-72 over Oral Roberts (6-2 in the Summit) in mid-January, when Jade Hill hit a three with 0.01 left on the clock.

Was there any doubt?

"No, it was off in time,'' Hill said Wednesday. "I'd never hit a buzzer-beater like that in any game I've played."

Which have been plenty, since Jade is the fourth of among the six siblings of Paul and Monique Hill in south Minneapolis — a Minnesota basketball family of renown.

"St. Thomas going Division I made all the difference for me, because I wanted to stay home so my family could watch me play," Hill said. "That support is important to me.''

There has been a complication in Hill's sphere of relationships. She started dating Andrew Rohde, a freshman standout on the Tommies' basketball team, last year.

The lanky, dynamic guard tested the transfer portal and wound up taking a sizable Name, Image and Likeness deal with Virginia. I tried to hedge the Rohde question to Hill, but she figured out immediately, laughed and said:

"We're still dating. The difference is, we were together constantly here last year … and now, I have a lot more free time."

My suggestion was Jade send her boyfriend a video on shooting, because Rohde has been a starter for the Cavaliers despite making a low percentage of shots.

"He's doing OK there," she said. "He had a stress fracture in a foot for a while."

Amber Scalia, sister of Big Ten standout Sara, leads the Tommies at 17.3 points per game. Hill is averaging 14.3. The only holdover from the DIII days, fifth-year senior Jordyn Glynn from Grand Meadow, Minn., is a veteran presence in the starting lineup.

I referred to her as a former Lark, and was corrected: "We're the Super Larks now. We upgraded.''

Just like St. Thomas.

"I had a lot of friends on the DIII team that chose not to continue playing,'' Glynn said. "I decided, 'Why not just try?'"

"I'm still here, starting as the guard … doing the dirty work, facilitating our offensive players like Amber, Jade and Jo [Langbehn].

"That Oral Roberts game was a huge turning point for us. It was a moment you say, 'We belong. We can compete.'"