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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, February 16, 2017 10:02 pm

They have inside view as teams are born, die

Greg Jones | The Journal Gazette

Beginning a college football program can be challenging, but ending one can be just as difficult.

The two extremes are being felt at two Indiana schools, with the advent of an NAIA program at Indiana Wesleyan in Marion and the extinction of an NCAA Division II team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer.

And northeast Indiana players seem to be along for the roller coaster ride of emotion on both campuses.

Indiana Wesleyan is set to unveil its football program in 2018 when the Wildcats will join the Mid-States Football Association, which includes 2016 NAIA national champion Saint Francis and 2012 and 2015 national champion Marian. 

Helping to get it started is Homestead senior Hunter Terrell, the Wildcats’ first recruit and the brother of Western Michigan and prospective NFL quarterback Zach Terrell.

"Someone told me that you should choose the school that you would want to go to if athletics was not a part of the equation," Hunter Terrell said. "Obviously, Indiana Wesleyan has outstanding facilities and a good reputation academically. But also I felt being a part of this new program is like a blank canvas. I get to help paint what the future is going to look like for this team and set the culture.

"I liked the idea of being a part of something new and being the first commit. It felt great to be honest, initially. But for awhile I was a little nervous and wondering ‘are there going to be other recruits and are other people going to see the great things I saw in Indiana Wesleyan?’ Obviously, they did now, but it was a little nerve-racking."

But the defensive end isn’t the only recruit. More followed, including three more from Homestead – Geoff Bilbrey, Evan Elston and D.C. Mickey – as well as Garrett quarterback Tanner Burns. 

"Building something from the ground up is not going to be the easiest task, but I am definitely excited to dive into it because I think great things are going to come out of this program," Burns said.

Indiana Wesleyan sold potential players on the prospects of playing in a $20 million stadium, with a state-of-the-art weight room, a Christian education and an athletic program that has produced a pair of recent men’s basketball national championships.

But next year, there will be no games, just prac­tices, meetings and workouts. That’s OK with the recruits, who will all be redshirted this fall. 

"It is a learning year and a growing year, for sure," Terrell said. "We are all going to be meatheads for a while. We just need to learn a lot."

At least, Indiana Wesleyan has a football future. With the suspension of classes at St. Joe’s at the end of this semester because of dire financial circumstances, the Pumas will end things after going 5-6 last season.

Most of the underclassmen, with the exception of some juniors who got the advantage of accelerated classwork from some of the faculty, are looking for new homes next season and contemplating their football futures. There are football programs reaching out to St. Joe players and students as a possible destination.

"It’s affected me pretty big right now," said junior linebacker Jared Eastes, a Northrop graduate. "When we first heard the news, we weren’t sure really what was going on. The junior class, especially, with having only one year left and the core curriculum being so specialized to St. Joe, we didn’t know if we would be able to transfer. We found there are a lot of schools doing reach-out programs. Now it is looking a lot safer, but at first I was really worried about my situation was going to be.

"Right now, football is a pretty high priority for me right now. I have gotten about 12 calls from schools, a lot of them at the NAIA level, a couple of DIIs and a lot of DIIIs. I am still really thinking about playing."

Eastes said Saint Francis is a possibility as a place he could end up playing and attending classes.

"I didn’t expect it all," Eastes said. "No one expected it. I would have never guessed in a million years that a school with this long of a tradition would fall into this bad of a financial burden and would have to close without any warning. I mean we made jokes about the facilities being a little out of date and things around campus not being maintained, but we had no idea it was this bad."

Norwell graduate Ivan Allison is also listed as a freshman defensive back on the St. Joe roster. 

Two players who are escaping the prospects of going to another university are senior Addison Dellinger, a Snider graduate, and junior Austin Pearson, a Northrop grad. Both played on the Pumas’ offensive line.

Dellinger will graduate at the end of the current semester, while Pearson took advantage of the accelerated opportunities and will finish early.

"It was like a gut-wrenching feeling," Pearson said of hearing the news of the school’s closing. "There’s people like me who are extremely happy and grateful that we are going to be able to graduate, but a lot of my buddies who I played football with here, they are struggling to get into other schools because this was just dropped on them so late."

Dellinger said the university is like a family, and the family is hurting right now.

"As a campus, a lot of people are just really disappointed," he said. "It came as a shock to pretty much everybody … most people just felt betrayed by the way it got handled."

gjones@jg.net