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A rivalry resumed: Passions still burn between St. Thomas Academy and Cretin-Derham Hall

By JIM PAULSEN, Star Tribune, 09/16/21, 5:15PM CDT


The two St. Paul Catholic schools will clash in football after last playing in 2004.

Steve Rosga and Cadet Luke Dobbs at practice. LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Steve Rosga stood on the sideline during a break in a recent St. Thomas Academy practice, and wide receiver Luke Dobbs walked over.

After an enthusiastic embrace, Dobbs stuck the needle in: “Whose side are you going to be on Friday?” he said.

Rosga laughed. “This is my team now,” he replied.

Rosga has gotten a lot of that this week. A superstar when he played for Cretin-Derham Hall in the early 1990s, he is now the strength and conditioning coach and a physical education teacher at St. Thomas Academy, as well as the Get Back guy on the Cadets sideline.

“You know, the loud guy you see on the sideline telling the players to ‘get back!’ ” Rosga said. “You’ll hear me. I get pretty loud.”

Rosga is just one of the many east metro denizens who have a keen interest in Friday’s game pitting longtime Catholic school rivals St. Thomas Academy and Cretin-Derham Hall. At one time, the game was a yearly event. From 1977 through 1986, both were members of the St. Paul City Conference.

St. Thomas left the conference in 1987, but the two schools remained rivals, sharing many of the same Catholic feeder schools, and occasional foes until 2004. They haven’t played since.

The rivalry has been rebooted this year, largely because Cretin-Derham Hall decided to drop down to Class 5A, where St. Thomas Academy has long been a powerhouse. And fans and alumni are letting their excitement be known.

Adding to the game’s high profile is its location. It will be played at the TCO Performance Center, the home base of the Vikings.

“There’s been a lot of excitement,” St. Thomas Activities Director Greg May said. “We’re close to selling out our allotted tickets. We’ve heard from a lot of alumni.”

Said Cadets junior defensive lineman Luke Pucel: “Yeah, the alumni have been shoving it down our throats that this is a big game. Seventeen years is a long time. And I think we lost the last time we played them.”

Said Cadets senior offensive lineman Leo Bluhm, simply: “It’s the biggest game of the year.”

So big, in fact, that the students at St. Thomas Academy, an all-boys military institution, were awarded with a rare out-of-uniform day on Friday.

St. Thomas Academy coach Dan O’Brien understands the passion surrounding the game. His wife, Chris, was a graduate of Derham Hall, an all-girls school before it merged with Cretin in 1987. Son Casey is a graduate of Cretin-Derham Hall and played football at the University of Minnesota, all while inspiring many with his courageous battle against repeated occurrences of osteosarcoma. Father-in-law Mal Scanlan was the longtime head football coach at Cretin.

But it’s just one game on an eight-game schedule, and he doesn’t want his players to lose sight of the bigger picture.

“The game hasn’t been played in 20 years, 19 years, whatever it is, so it’s a huge deal,” O’Brien said. “On the field, I want them to enjoy what’s going on. There could be 7,000 people there Friday night and it does give it a playoff feel. But what’s most important to me as a coach is to keep these guys grounded. Our goal for us to improve every single week. This one game will not define our season.”

Try telling that to each school’s partisan fan base. Rosga and brothers Tim and Jeff were integral pieces of the Cretin-Derham Hall program for more than a decade. Steve, who played college football at Colorado and had injury-hampered stints with the Colts and the Giant in the NFL, still recalls the vitriol he faced from St. Thomas Academy faithful.

“They hated our family,” he said. “Of course, that simply motivated me more. And that also talked to the success we were having. If you hate a player on the other team, they must be doing something good.”

Rosga acknowledged that Cretin-Derham Hall didn’t win every game, but he does remember winning in 1990 and 1991, his junior and senior years. “I truly enjoyed this rivalry. The chants, the songs intended to distract the offense, I remember all of those. It’s the kind of thing that makes high school athletics genuine and truly enjoyable,” he said.

He said he’s taken plenty of ribbing this week and has gotten hissed at from alumni on both sides. He laughs it off but takes the time to let St. Thomas faithful know that his allegiance is now fully on their side.

“When my dad died in 2019, there were 40, 50 students that showed up, in full Class A dress uniforms,” Rosga said. “My uncle was in the receiving line and he said to me, ‘I thought I was being set up with all of these St. Thomas boys.’ There were blue and white flowers next to my dad’s casket. St. Thomas opened its arms to me and my family. I couldn’t have been prouder.”

Some allegiances are a little more set in stone, however.

“To my family, the perfect ending would probably be a tie,” O’Brien said. “Although my son has shared with me that he’ll be wearing purple and gold.”

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