Given the great tradition of athletic excellence at Saint Thomas Academy, it’s no surprise that dozens of Cadets each year aspire to compete collegiately. What may be surprising is the team effort it takes to make those dreams come true.
Teachers, coaches, counselors, Cadets and their families all play a role. It’s not enough that the student is a talented athlete. He also has to have good, or great, grades, and must stay on top of NCAA eligibility requirements, application submission deadlines, and the recruitment process. Fortunately, the Academy’s faculty helps on all those fronts.
The first step is a series of conversations among players, parents, counselors, and coaches. For Mac Brown ’16, who competed in football, tennis and swimming at the Academy, those talks started early.
“When I got to the Academy in eighth grade, I had aspirations to play Division I football,” recalled Brown, soon to enter his final season of eligibility as he pursues an MBA at the University of Mississippi while also punting and holding for kicks. “The staff at Saint Thomas Academy is great. They all do a good job of making sure the academics are there along with the athletics. In high school, I didn’t start fast academically. I was playing catch-up, and the teachers and coaches kept me accountable. You tell your coaches you have a goal, and they’re going to do whatever they can to get you there.”
That’s on top of the inherent nature of the Academy. For example, Brown noted, “STA taught me to be patient and work hard. In the seniority system, you have to earn your stripes, and I also learned that through football, swimming and tennis. It takes time.”
And when the time came to handle the college recruitment process for football during his junior and senior year, Brown had all the help he needed. “I really connected with John Barnes, so he was my guy for all three sports. John going through it with his son (Ryan Barnes ’15), he kind of showed me an easier and less stressful way to go through the process.
“Also, at STA compared with other schools, you’ll get more attention, and there are so many connections in the STA community. We sent six or seven guys to Dartmouth football, and that legacy goes on. Through STA, you meet a lot of great athletes and hear a lot of stories, and you can learn from those. At a lot of schools, you don’t know those people, but at STA it’s easy to come into contact with them.”
More recently, Jason Samec ’19 capitalized on all the Academy offers to make it onto the University of South Dakota football team. “One person who stands out, especially over the last two years as I was trying to figure out where to go, was Casey Erickson, the college counselor,” said Samec, who will enter this football season as a redshirt freshman.
“The summer going into my senior year, we would meet in his office twice a week, and he would go through all my papers with me, my resume, and all that kind of stuff. He would help me make sure all my ducks were in a row and help me look at different schools where I thought I could play football and get admitted academically. He was extremely helpful.”
Samec also heaps high praise on Head Football Coach Dan O’Brien, not just for help with highlight tapes and contacting coaches, but also for his belief and inspiration. “One moment that stands out for me was talking to Coach O’Brien after a workout. This was summer going into senior year, and I hadn’t been recruited a ton my junior year. I told him my goal since I started playing football was to play Division I, but that I hadn’t really gotten any offers yet, and I knew this was the year I had to show out. He was just like, ‘You know what? I know for a fact that if you are willing to put in extra time and extra work, you’ll be able to make it, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help you get there, and I’m right here the whole way.’ It’s really helpful to know there’s somebody who’s got your back like that. That was a cool moment for me.”
Each year, Erickson and College Counseling Director Norma Gutierrez assist about 20 to 25 Cadets in pursuing their college sports aspirations. Most are football players; however, Erickson credits all Saint Thomas Academy coaches for committing to help student-athletes compete at the next level.
“The coaches are really approachable and are always thinking school first,” Erickson said. “They’re asking, ‘How does this student match up with a certain institution from a social aspect and academic and athletic aspects. I always feel comfortable reaching out to the coaches to ask if athletes have spoken to them about their interest in playing college sports and asking about the student’s ability level.
“It’s important to have that conversation early and to make sure the student is comfortable expressing that interest with us in the counseling office as well as their coaches. It can’t just be one or the other. We want to keep open lines of communication between our office, the coach, and the student and his family.”
Fueling Erickson’s philosophy is his own experience lettering in football, golf and hockey for Albert Lea Central High School and before joining the Academy, his service as an athletic liaison in the office of admissions at the University of Minnesota. That gave him great insight into the challenges facing the would-be college athlete, and, he said, “we might be the first ones telling them that they may not be looking at a Division I situation, that they can shoot for the stars but also know of other opportunities.”
Erickson and Gutierrez also face the unique situation of helping the Academy’s hockey players navigate transitions between playing in juniors and then pursuing college several years after high school graduation. “Norma and I get callbacks from players asking us to send transcripts to certain coaching staffs or asking us for feedback on their essays,” Erickson said. “Norma or I can grab letters of recommendation from two or three years ago.”
In addition to the tenacity and technical acuity of the counselors, O’Brien pointed out other factors contributing to Cadets’ advancement to college sports. “Being a military school, a lot of our focus is on leadership,” he said. “We have leadership classes as soon as they get here, and we put kids into leadership roles. Every college coach is looking for leaders. The military aspect also addresses the mental toughness piece that is required to be an elite athlete. When talent is equal, it’s the mental toughness and leadership pieces that take over.”
O’Brien, who served nine years in athletic administration at the University of Minnesota before joining the Academy, is big on reality checks for aspiring collegiate athletes. “When I see talent at a certain level,” he said, “I’ll sit down with the kid and his parents, and say, ‘Hey, where’s your heart at? Tell me how far you want to take this.’ I know what it takes to make it at that level. It takes more than talent. You have to absolutely love what you’re doing. It’s a full-time job. If you’re traveling with a team it might be 50 or 60 hours a week when you’re in season, and 20 hours a week even when you’re out of season.”
He likens the commitment to playing college sports with a commitment to parenthood: “You think you know what you’re getting into, but until you’re there you don’t know.” He speaks regularly with a recent Academy grad, now in the middle of summer football workouts at college, “and he’s like, ‘Holy man, this is hard! Coach, everyone here is really, really good.’ That’s why I try to find out if they really love their sport.”
One who does is Jackson Smith ’20, now preparing for his first season at Kansas State University, even after a knee injury in his junior year at the Academy threatened his college prospects. Said O’Brien: “Jackson will forever be an example of what I tell kids: ‘The dream doesn’t give up on people, but some people give up on their dreams.’ He had a dream of playing college football at the highest level. He worked incredibly hard in the off season. He was a fixture in our weight room. At the start of the season nobody knew who he was. At the end of the season, he was all-district, offensive lineman of the year in the district, and was all-state. He had some small school offers, plus an opportunity to walk on with Kansas St. It was a huge testament to him and his family and how much he loves football.”
Once convinced of the athlete’s passion and drive, O’Brien focuses on fit between athlete and school. “If you’ve got five schools that are your top choices, number one, can you get into them? Number two, will they be interested in you? And then, do they have the academic program that you want?”
From there, O’Brien helps his players contact prospective college coaches. “I make sure they have any film that they want and academic records. I’ll explain characteristics such as how hard he works and what kind of family he comes from, what sort of support system he has and what sort he needs.”
He also maintains relationships with college coaches that ultimately serve the Cadets. “When we find a program where we develop personal relationships, we’re comfortable sending kids there, because we know how they will be treated. I wouldn’t send our players to a place where I wouldn’t send my own kid.”