Sawatzke: My Knight in shining armor

Tom Sawatzke pulls up for a jump shot against Bethel University. Sawatzke, a 2009 MHS graduate, is averaging 18.5 points per game as a senior at Carleton College. (Photo contributed by Carleton College)
Tom Sawatzke pulls up for a jump shot against Bethel University. Sawatzke, a 2009 MHS graduate, is averaging 18.5 points per game as a senior at Carleton College. (Photo contributed by Carleton College)

For the couple of dozen of people that visit the roster page on the website for the Division III Carleton College Mens Basketball team each year, there are a few random facts about each of the players. For most, the answers to questions such as what is your favorite food or favorite TV show are likely insignificant, both to the player and the reader.
But to this reader, there is one significant answer on the roster. No. 23, the starting point guard for the Carleton Knights, was asked who had the biggest influence on his basketball career. The answer, his dad and his brother, is something I won’t forget.
If you haven’t watched Tom Sawatzke, maybe you don’t understand the significance of it.
But for those who have watched a six-foot guard with a minimal vertical turn into one of the best players in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, it’s pretty obvious what makes me so proud to be the older brother and to have had any kind of influence on someone who is without question my favorite athlete in the entire world.
Quite simply, Tom, now a senior, gets it. He understands that hard work wins out. He understands that the last play shouldn’t affect the next play. He understands that you get out of it what you put into it.
Tom started putting into the game, both physically and emotionally, at a young age. Four years my junior, he would tag along to Saturday morning basketball camps, showing up a number of my friends in dribbling drills and other activities.
On week nights, the whole family would head to the high school gym to watch some of the great Magic teams play big games. One vivid memory we share from growing up is getting in line around 3 p.m. on a school day to make sure we got tickets for the Joel Przybilla-Darius Lane showdown. When we finally got into the gym, the pressure of the game had worn on my little seven-year old brother so much that he spent much of the B-squad game laying on his back in the bleachers trying to calm his upset stomach.
Now, with control over the outcome often resting in his hands, the nerves have disappeared. As a senior, the little boy who couldn’t stomach a regular season high school game that had nothing to do with him is now the go-to scorer on a contending MIAC team. Anytime the shot clock, or game clock, winds its way toward zero, the ball tends to find No. 23.
“He’s a natural leader,” said Carleton Head Coach Guy Kalland. “You need to be comfortable with yourself, and he is.”
The confidence has built slowly over the years, growing more and more with the experience Sawatzke gained, both real and imaginary.
We’d come home from those Magic basketball games and the next afternoon Tom and I would be in the basement imagining our moment. We’d play Jock Jams and go through warm-ups, he’d be Troy Bigalke and I’d be Przybilla, or he’d be Dusty Decker and I’d be John Frie. We’d warm up together, then play against each other, counting down the clock time and time again as we tried to play the role of hero.
Three times in the last two years, Sawatzke has been the obvious hero. Last winter at Carleton’s gym he took a pass from his post player, faked right, took one dribble left and calmly knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Knights a two-point win over the Bethel Royals. This November, in Hawaii, Tom knocked down a deep three pointer to tie the Knights’ game against Div. II Hawaii Pacific with just 30 seconds remaining. Twenty-nine seconds later, he took the ball the length of the court and banked in another three, this one to win the game. Just over a week later, Sawatzke and the Knights were back home in Northfield, trailing Bethel by one point again. And again, the ball found its way into the point guard’s hands. With the clock winding down, he pulled up for a 25-footer like he was alone in the backyard, and of course, he hit it.
“You can tell with the shot clock winding down, he’s not nervous at all,” said Scott Theisen, Sawatzke’s teammate and a MIAC MVP candidate. “He’s not afraid to pull up in someone’s face with the game on the line.”
For a kid who grew up in gyms around the country, none of the shots were a matter of luck, not even the bank shot in Hawaii. They were all a product of confidence that started growing at a young age and of repetition that Sawatzke has never tired of. When he was young, his love for the game motivated him. As he grew older, nothing really changed.
“When you’re a kid, and you love something, you just kind of lose yourself in it. You play the game because you love it,” said Sawatzke. “And that is still with me.”
Above all else, that love is what continues to motivate Sawatzke. It’s what has helped him gain strength every year since he walked on campus four years ago. It’s what led him to the gym for three hours a day, five days a week this summer. It’s what keeps him from burning out, even during the grind of a college basketball season, likely the longest season in Div. III sports. And it’s what keeps sending him to the floor for loose ball after loose ball, game after game.
This season, Sawatzke is averaging 37.2 minutes per game in conference play. That is a minute and a half more than anyone else in the 11-team MIAC. Sometimes the wear and tear shows itself. It comes in the form of shots missed short and being a step slow on defense. But each time, you can see the gamer in him come out, as he pushes himself past the point of exhaustion, pouring out everything he has put into the game each and every night he steps on the floor. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As a freshman Sawatzke came off the bench for a Knights team that caught fire down the stretch to earn the four seed in the conference tournament. In the tournament they reeled off three straight wins, the last one being the conference championship game. That win not only gave them a significant piece of hardware, but also a berth in the Div. III NCAA tournament, where they would fall to the eventual national champions, Wisconsin Stevens Point, on a last second shot.
It was a season, and an experience, that Sawatzke wouldn’t trade for anything. He had a small role, but a contributing role, and he played it well. He hit meaningful threes in the each of the last two games of the conference tournament. And he got to be part of a team that won the biggest games, something that he always dreamed of.
Yet at the same time, coming off the bench was a foreign role for someone who had been a go-to player on nearly every team he’d ever played on.
“That was tough,” admitted Sawatzke. “I think that would be tough on any athlete at this level. I was playing behind a very good point guard on a very good team. But even knowing that, it’s hard on you as an athlete.”
But it didn’t take long for Sawatzke to find more individual success and opportunity at Carleton. He got stronger by his sophomore year, earning the starting point guard job on a team that went 17-3 in conference play to share the regular season title with St. Thomas, who would go on to win that year’s national championship. That year, he was a starter, but still a role player. The Knights looked to him to hit a couple big threes, but largely to take care of the ball and be a distributor on a team that featured two of the best seniors in the conference.
The last two years, that has changed. Sawatzke, along with Theisen, have become go-to players as they try to continue a strong program tradition at Carleton. Last year, due to injuries to their supporting cast, they were unsuccessful, coming up short of the conference playoffs for the first time in Tom’s career there.
This year, despite playing just a seven man rotation, the two standout seniors have helped lead the Knights to an 11-7 conference record and put themselves in  position to get back in the playoffs.
Individually, it’s been an impressive season for Sawatzke. A couple of weeks ago, he became just the 26th member of Carleton’s 1,000 point club. He leads the conference in minutes per game, three pointers per game (3.1), and is second in scoring per game (18.5 points per game). He’s hit the third most free throws, and holds the third best free throw shooting percentage (86 percent). He’s also ninth in three-point percentage (40.6 percent), despite a higher degree of difficulty than anyone I’ve seen at this level (occasionally due to his choice, but largely due to end-of-clock situations).
“Without a doubt, I think people throughout the league would say he is the best point guard we have in the MIAC,” said Goetz, the third senior on the Carleton Knights, and Sawatzke’s roommate.
Yet for Tom, neither that recognition, nor the stats, are the most important. Being All-Conference is great, and Sawatzke will likely acheive that for the second straight year. But it’s nothing compared to being a winner.
He stopped worrying about individual numbers a long time ago. After last season started with a miserable 2 for 16 performance from the field, Sawatzke claims he’s never gone back to check season stats.
There are more important things to play for.
When Tom was just a little white-haired kid playing point guard for Magic Gold, he always brought out an impressive section of family and friends. Twelve years later, many of the same people still come, whether it’s down to Northfield, the Cities, or wherever the Knights are playing. Sawatzke knows every time he looks into the stands he’s going to see a loving face.
“No matter where I’m playing, I have the largest fan base,” said Sawatzke, who might have had more fans at this year’s game at St. John’s University than the Johnnies themselves. “Whether it is in Honolulu or Fargo, I always have family and friends there. As an athlete, that is everything. It’s impossible to explain what it’s like knowing your family is in the crowd.”
Since he can’t explain it, he tries to give it back. Sawatzke plays to win. But he plays for his family.
“I have a family and friend base that put in a ton of time to make sure I could chase my dreams to the fullest,” said Sawatzke. “I owe it to them, and to myself, to leave it all out there every night during the season and every day in the offseason.”
There might just be one game left in Sawatzke’s career. There might be ten. Like great theater, no one knows exactly when the ride is going to end. It would be easy to put a lot of pressure on each and every game down the stretch, but it would also be foolish. In a team sport, only so much is in your control. As his career winds down, Sawatzke aims to control what he can.
“I can’t promise I’m going to go out with a bang shooting the ball, or that we’re going to win every game,” said Sawatzke. “What’s important is what’s been important every game of my career. Leaving it all on the floor.”
Sawatzke and the Knights will hold Senior Day this Saturday, as they play host to Hamline University at 3 p.m. for their last regular season game.

Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]