Rising to the Division I challenge

Apple Valley resident Ruth Sinn is the winningest coach in University of St. Thomas women's basketball history. Next up: preparing the team to play in the Division I Summit League, which the school is scheduled to join in 2021-22.

Former AVHS coach guides St. Thomas women’s basketball transition

Ruth Sinn is going nowhere, even though she’s starting what seems in many ways like a new job.

The winningest coach in University of St. Thomas women’s basketball history, Sinn is guiding her program through two life-changing events. First is the pandemic that has cast uncertainty over the 2020-21 season, which is to be the Tommies’ last in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and NCAA Division III.

Following that is the jump to the Summit League and NCAA Division I, which takes effect in 2021-22. After being removed from the MIAC in a May 2019 vote of school presidents, St. Thomas became the first school the NCAA has allowed to jump from Division III to Division I, receiving a waiver to bypass Division II.

The Summit League consists of schools mostly from the Midwest, including North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State. St. Thomas will join the league in all sports except football (Pioneer League), men’s hockey (Central Collegiate Hockey Association) and women’s hockey (Western Collegiate Hockey Association).

The women’s basketball team is one of several at St. Thomas that seems well-positioned for the move. The Tommies had the second-highest winning percentage in Division III over the last decade.

“We’re excited about the opportunity,” Sinn said. “We want to be competitive, but at the same time we’re trying to develop student-athletes. Even at Apple Valley, we were talking about building strong women. That’s not going to change.”

Sinn was Apple Valley High School’s head coach from 1989 to 2005, then was hired to become head coach at St. Thomas, where she played basketball and is a member of the university’s athletic hall of fame. She continues to live in Apple Valley and her St. Thomas teams have maintained ties to the south metro. Apple Valley High School graduate Brynne Rolland was UST’s leading scorer last season and Lakeville South graduate Ellie Wolkow was an important part of the Tommies’ rotation, averaging about 15 minutes a game.

Apple Valley was part of the Lake Conference when Sinn coached there. The Eagles now are part of the South Suburban Conference, and “I’m a firm believer in the South Suburban Conference,” said Sinn, also a member of the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “We’ve had a number of players from the conference who have had very good careers at St. Thomas. Brynne Rolland had an excellent season last year, and Jenna Docter (an Eastview graduate) was an All-American for us.”

Sinn said getting local players would remain a priority for St. Thomas, which will be the second Division I women’s basketball team in the state, following the University of Minnesota. Summit League teams in the Dakotas have been particularly successful at recruiting Minnesota players.

“First and foremost, we want to keep local kids here,” Sinn said. “We expect a lot of our players will come from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. There are Minnesota players who haven’t had the opportunity to play Division I basketball close to home, and we want to offer that.”

Sinn made it clear she expects the Tommies to become competitive in the Summit League quickly. “We were not a middle-of-the-road Division III team,” she said.

No, they weren’t. St. Thomas was 245-30 over the last nine years, an .891 winning percentage. In 15 years at the school, Sinn’s teams were 350-87 and had a 77-game winning streak against MIAC opponents. The Tommies have won nine regular-season championships and nine playoff titles in the MIAC in Sinn’s tenure.

She said Summit League teams have proven they can win with Minnesota players. Asked what it will take for St. Thomas to win there, she said, “we’ll need to be stronger and faster, but the X’s and O’s won’t really change.”

St. Thomas won’t be eligible for the NCAA playoff for five years after the jump to Division I, which coaches from other universities are likely to point out when recruiting players who might also be considering UST. Sinn said she and her assistant coaches need to promote the overall student-athlete experience at their school, while noting they can still go to the Summit League tournament.

Sinn and her assistant coaches got to visit the Summit League tourney in March, shortly before the pandemic shut down college sports. South Dakota, a team with four Minnesota players (including guard Macy Guebert from Eastview High School), defeated South Dakota State in the championship game.

“I think the thing that struck me most was the energy in the building,” she said. “That’s something we hope to be part of someday.”

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