Kuchinski, Tommies Defense Ready for Toughest Test

Wallie Kuchinski Photo: Courtesy St. Thomas Athletic Department
Wallie Kuchinski

November 30, 2017 09:39 PM

For Wallie Kuchinski, it was an opportunity that came at just the right time.

Even if at first, he was a bit hesitant to pursue it.

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The former Blaine and Bemidji State standout was the defensive coordinator at Missouri's Division II Truman State back in 2008 when he first heard about an opening for a similar position at St. Thomas under new head coach Glenn Caruso.

"I was having a really bad day at work when my Dad called and told me about the opening here," said Kuchinski, who had been looking to get closer to home.

"I emailed Glenn, and he called me back about an hour later. He convinced me to come up for an interview. At the time, I was kind of caught up in levels. I didn't know if I wanted to be at a Division III school. I'd always wanted to be a coach in Division I or the NFL. But I came up for the interview and everything about this place was awesome."

The experience went so well that Caruso was able to accurately predict what happened next.

Well, almost accurately.

"He told me 'What's going to end up happening is you'll be driving back to Missouri, and about halfway there you'll end up calling me and taking the job,'" Kuchinski said.

"Actually, I didn't even make it halfway. As soon as we started driving back, I realized this was the place."

And Kuchinski has gone on to play a big role in helping Caruso build the Tommies into a national power. St. Thomas has now won six of the last eight MIAC titles and has made eight NCAA playoff appearances in the past nine years - advancing to the national championship game in both 2012 and '15.

This year, the Tommies have again advanced to the national quarterfinals, beating Georgia's Berry College 29-13 in the second round last week.

But next up is a formidable challenge. The Tommies (11-1) play at top-ranked and defending national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-0) at noon Saturday in Belton, Texas.

The Crusaders are averaging 40.5 points and 400 yards per game.

It's one of two playoff games involving Minnesota teams this weekend. Minnesota State-Mankato (13-0) plays host to Texas A&M Commerce (11-1) at noon Saturday in the Division II third round in Mankato.

"They can run," Kuchinski said of Mary Hardin-Baylor. "And they're very fast at the skill positions. They have a big battering ram of a running back (junior Markeith Miller) and their offensive line is very good."

But Kuchinski's defense is again stout - as it has been for much of his tenure at the school. Since 2010, St. Thomas has ranked first or second in the MIAC in both points and yards allowed every season but one.

This year, the Tommies are allowing just 10.1 points and 158.8 yards per game. Six St. Thomas defensive players were named All-MIAC first team.

Not bad for a unit that got off to a bit of a slow start, including in a 25-22 loss at Wisconsin-Stout in the season's second game. But the Tommies bounced back strong, allowing archrival St. John's just one yard rushing in a 20-17 victory before a crowd of 37,355 at Target Field on Sept. 23.

And they haven't looked back since, allowing only 41 points over their final seven games (an average of 5.9 per game) - a span that included three shutouts.

"We had to get back to gelling the way teams we've had here in the past have," said senior defensive lineman Austin Jochum, who would go on to be named MIAC lineman of the year, following the win over the Johnnies.

"Talking with the other leaders on defense, we still didn't feel like we had gotten 100 percent there yet."

They have now. But this week will likely represent the defense's toughest test yet.

"We just have to take it one day at a time," Kuchinski said. "That's how we try to prepare every week. We focus on the job we have in front of us at the time. And that's how we're approaching things this week too."

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Frank Rajkowski

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