Written By: Natalie Hansen

On Sunday March 20th, St. Thomas (MN) softball beat No. 22 South Florida 10-4 at the USF Invitational. This win gave the Tommies their first win over a ranked Division I opponent since moving from D3 to D1 this year. But what’s the difference between the two divisions? Why is the move from D3 to D1 such a big deal?

A Jump to Division I

On July 15, 2020, the NCAA gave the University of St. Thomas clearance to make the jump from Division III to Division I, the first move of its kind since the establishment of current NCAA rules in 2010. This transition to D1 came after the 2019 vote by Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference school presidents to kick St. Thomas out due to their dominance in the conference. While typically a Division III school would undergo a 12-year process and spend time in Division II on the way to Division I, the NCAA’s Division I council waived the reclassification rules for St. Thomas in light of the unique situation. The Tommies, coming from the heart of Minnesota, joined the Summit League for 19 of their 22 sports, the Pioneer Football League, the WCHA women’s hockey league, and the CCHA men’s hockey league. The 2021-2022 school year marked the first year that St. Thomas sports would be competing at the Division I level.

Changes for Tommie Softball

Along with the reclassification as a D1 school, the transition also brought in a new coaching staff and outlook for the St. Thomas softball team. The university selected Jennifer Bagley Trotter to lead the Tommies as their first Division I head softball coach. Coach Trotter, a native Minnesotan, came from Division II Missouri Western State University, where she led the team to regional playoffs 11 of the last 16 full seasons. Coach Trotter expresses that she is “fired up to be given the opportunity to come home to Minnesota and become the next head coach for the Tommie softball program.”

The St. Thomas softball team is ready to undertake the challenges that will come their way with the transition to Division I. C.J. Jacobson, a 2021 recipient of NCAA D3 All-Region and All-MIAC honors and a junior on the 2022 squad, reflected on the transition in her August 2021 piece I Will Reach The Summit: St. Thomas’ C.J. Jacobson. She writes that, “we understand there’s a learning curve and many challenges to overcome as we take on so many experienced teams with such talented rosters. However, we love a challenge and we see this as an opportunity to test ourselves and grow.”

Comparing D1 to D3

The St. Thomas softball team showed just us how stringing hits together and shutting down an offense leads to wins, as they racked up 12-straight 30 or more win seasons.

This table shows a side-by-side comparison for Division I and Division III softball statistics from the 2021 season. From this table we can see that ERAs are higher at the D3 level, but strikeout rates, walk rates and HR/FB ratios are lower.

2021 Season D1 D3
ERA 4.75 5.37
K% 15.1 12.3
BB% 8.4 7.3
HR/Fly Ball % 9.1 5

St. Thomas’ Comparison

One of the central ways that we can analyze the difference between Division I and Division III softball is by seeing how St. Thomas hitters have competed against pitchers at both of the levels. This can can help answer the question of what happens when you take a D3 powerhouse softball program and drop them into a mid-major D1 conference.

In 2021, against D3 opponents, St. Thomas had a team batting average of .325, on base percentage of .408, and slugging percentage of .480. Thus far in 2022, though, the Tommies have posted a .236/.309/.337 slash.

St. Thomas BA OBP SLG
2021 0.325 0.408 0.480
2022 0.236 0.309 0.337
Difference -0.089 -0.099 -0.143

We can also see how this difference plays out for individual hitters in the St. Thomas lineup. At the conclusion of the 2021 season, the St. Thomas offense was led by C.J. Jacobson (.421/.559/.702), Megan Baniecke (.393/.467/.626), and Mackenzie Rudy (.341/.379/.439).

This figure shows how C.J. Jacobson stacked up against the rest of the St. Thomas softball team, MIAC, and Division III softball during the 2021 season. We can see how her traditional hitting statistics are much higher than the averages of these subgroups, showing how dominant of the Division III hitter she was.

We see a similar image unfold for Megan Baniecke with higher than average BA, OBP, and SLG.

Although Mackenzie Rudy had a lower OBP and SLG than the Tommie team as a whole, we can see how her BA is higher than the average for all the subgroups.

These visuals begin to characterize how these three players were dominant hitters in Division III softball with statistics that are higher than the division and conference averages. All three of these St. Thomas players are on the 2022 roster and have received at bats.

Players’ Comparison

We can compare how these top-tier Division III softball players adjusted to the Division I transition by comparing their statistics between the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

This table shows batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage for C.J. Jacobson’s 2021 and 2022 seasons. We can see how each metric has decreased with St. Thomas’ transition from D3 to D1 softball.

Jacobson BA OBP SLG
2021 0.421 0.559 0.702
2022 0.224 0.307 0.254
Difference -0.197 -0.252 -0.448

Jacobson’s BA, OBP, and SLG are all lower than the team, conference, and division averages.

Baniecke and Rudy have less total at bats than Jacobson for the 2022 season, but we can see how the division transition also decreased their production in each area.

Baniecke BA OBP SLG
2021 0.393 0.467 0.626
2022 0.108 0.250 0.216
Difference -0.285 -0.217 -0.410

Rudy BA OBP SLG
2021 0.341 0.379 0.439
2022 0.118 0.211 0.176
Difference -0.223 -0.168 -0.263

 

 

Average Difference BA OBP SLG
(Jacobson, Baniecke, Rudy) -0.235 -0.212 -0.374

Averaging the impact that the transition has had on these players, we can see that BA dropped by .235, OBP dropped by .212, and SLG dropped by .374. This indicates just how hard it is to hit at a D1 level, even for athletes that dominated at the D3 level.

A Sabermetric Comparison

We can also used some sabermetric statistics to analyze the changes for these players between the 2021 and 2022 seasons so far.

The table below shows this comparison. The first measure used is weighted on base average (wOBA), which represents how players get on base while assigning more weight and value to extra base hits based on run values. Quality at bats (QAB) calculates what percentage of the total at bats were productive. Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) measures the batting average only based on balls that are hit into the field of play, removing the impact of home runs and strikeouts.

Jacobson wOBA QAB BABIP
2021 0.577 0.632 0.444
2022 0.265 0.333 0.349
Difference -0.312 -0.299 -0.095

We can see how Jacobson has decreased in all of these statistics since the transition to Division I, with similar results for both Baniecke and Rudy.

Baniecke wOBA QAB BABIP
2021 0.503 0.54 0.419
2022 0.236 0.311 0.13
Difference -0.267 -0.229 -0.289

 

Rudy wOBA QAB BABIP
2021 0.389 0.467 0.45
2022 0.199 0.211 0.182
Difference -0.190 -0.256 -0.268

Averaged across the three players, we can see that wOBA decreased by .256, QAB by .261, and BABIP by .217.

Average Difference wOBA QAB BABIP
(Jacobson, Baniecke, Rudy) -0.256 -0.261 -0.217

South Florida Upset

Going into the game (3-20), St. Thomas defeated the No. 22 ranked South Florida 10-4, which marked the Tommies’ first win over a ranked opponent in Division I softball in their fourth matchup.

The USF Bulls jumped ahead first in the bottom of the first inning when Madison Epperson doubled to left field, scoring Vivian Ponn and Meghan Sheehan. The Tommies answered back in the top of the 3rd with C.J. Jacobson’s RBI single, bringing the score to 2-1.

Then USF’s Vivian Ponn ripped a 2 RBI double to centerfield in the bottom of the 3rd, widening USF’s gap 4-1.

In the 4th inning, UST’s Kaitlyn Raymond singled to right field for an RBI, and Brooke Ellestad hit a 3-run homer, putting the Tommies ahead 4-5.

The Tommies added on three more runs in the 5th inning, capitalizing on an USF error, fielder’s choice, and a single by Kaitlyn Raymond, widening the score 8-4 Tommies after the 5th.

St. Thomas pitcher Christina Crawford did not allow any runs over the final 4 innings, and the Tommies added 2 runs in the top of the 6th off singles from Megan Baniecke and Nicole Pieper.

The Tommies closed out the game, clinching a 10-4 win after Crawford stalled the Bulls’ offense.

Future for the Tommies

Although the start of the 2022 softball season for the Tommies has shown just how hard it is to transition from Division III to Division I softball, games like the USF upset demonstrate how fundamental softball can win games at any level. As St. Thomas looks to the future, there are a few freshmen who have been able to contribute at the Division I level in the 2022 season so far.

Brooke Ellestad .397/.415/.667 has found her place on the St. Thomas squad, putting up numbers higher than team, conference, and division averages with a wOBA/QAB/BABIP of .481/.451/.382.

Kaitlyn Raymond has also had an impressive start to her freshmen season with a .318/.408/.333 and wOBA/QAB/BABIP of .349/.462/.457

Tommies’ Upcoming Schedule

To prepare for their first conference season in the Summit League, the Tommies played a competitive early season schedule including 4 games against ranked teams. Their ranked matchups included a game against No. 15 Louisiana, 2 games against No. 8 Missouri, and this win against No. 22 South Florida. They didn’t exactly ease themselves into the level change, but this should definitely bode well for them moving forward as they enter Summit League play.

St. Thomas is starting conference play this weekend with their series at Western Illinois where they will compete in 3 games against the Leathernecks. Through their early season non-conference play, the Tommies rank 5th in the conference for team batting average (.236), 6th for slugging percentage (.337), 5th for on base percentage (.309), and 4th for fielding percentage (.960) out of 8 total teams. This demonstrates how competitive they will be with the rest of the conference − a Summit League who, other than St. Thomas, put up just a .434 winning percentage through non-conference play. The Tommies should be in the thick of the conference, and Sunday’s win should show them that they undoubtedly have the ability to compete at this level.

For the 2021, 2019, and 2018 seasons at the Division III level, St. Thomas put up 33, 43, and 39 wins respectively, showing that the Tommies know what it takes to win and have already established that winning culture within the program. They can continue to use their veterans and emerging underclass talent to build their team throughout their conference schedule.

The challenges that St. Thomas has faced with their new division classification are just one way that we can analyze differences between Division I and Division III softball. Greater analysis could be done to look at specific differences in the pitching between the levels, and this includes leveraging the ball tracking data that is becoming more prevalent in softball.