By STEVE KRAH
There’s a popular hashtag around Rensselaer, Ind.: #ForeverPumas.
It looks like this is the last spring Saint Joseph’s College will field a baseball team or any other team.
Because of monetary woes, SJC has decided to close at the end of the 2016-17 academic year.
The school, which was founded in 1889, went on financial probation by the Higher Learning Commission and then made the decision to cease operations — at least for the time being. Commencement is scheduled for May 6.
Rick O’Dette, a former Saint Joseph’s player and 17th-year head coach, has been in charge of the transition after the shocking news broke just before the season opener for this school with a history of diamond success.
“We’re going about it like it’s our last season,” O’Dette said Wednesday, March 29. “We’ve always had financial questions and concerns. But this all kind of hit us quickly.”
Dr. Robert Pastoor, SJC president, issued the following statement Feb. 2:
“At what is truly one of the most difficult points in the history of Saint Joseph’s College, when it seems that hope is lost and parties are divided, it is important to remember that our Community has made it through other difficult chapters, and that we all agree more than we disagree. We all want to find a way for SJC to overcome the present challenges and be resurrected with its mission intact. We need to pull together, rather than apart, during this transition period — students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and everyone who loves SJC.
“We wish the financial situation was different than it is, but it has been building over decades, and it will take time to work our way out of it. We regret that many people did not realize the financial situation we were in, and we are committed to sharing all relevant information with our Community, because through understanding we can develop solutions.
“With your prayers and support, you and we will help make Saint Joseph’s College strong again.”
O’Dette’s NCAA Division II No. 19-ranked Pumas (currently 16-6 overall and 2-2 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference) have gone about their on-field business while many of the players have looked to find a new collegiate home for next year.
“The process has been really difficult,” O’Dette said. “Our players have done a really good job from the standpoint of getting better and being of value to other programs.
“It’s a great place. It’s just a sad deal. We’re going to miss it for sure. These guys have bought in to making it the best opportunity they can.”
O’Dette’s coaching staff includes Matt Kennedy, Nic Sampognaro, Eric Bunnell and Dennis Khym. These men will also have to find new places, but the players have been top priority.
“Our first goal is to get these guys comfortable with what’s happening,” O’Dette said. “They don’t deserve this. It’s not their fault.
“We’ve done a good job of being out front with everything. We’ve made a ton of contacts so everybody who wants to play somewhere has an opportunity to play.”
O’Dette and his assistants have fielded hundreds of phone calls inquiring about player availability.
“The majority of our guys are already going somewhere,” O’Dette said. There were a few scouts at the doubleheader against Wayne State Wednesday, March 29 at SJC’s Gil Hodges Field/Rueth-Fitzgibbon Complex.
“A number of guys are going to (NCAA) Division I baseball,” O’Dette said. “We’ve got some guys who are going D-II, D-III, NAIA and a few will just end up going to school and finishing their degree.
“It’s tough to be done with their game and hand them over to another coach like we’re a junior college. It’s been a really difficult thing.”
O’Dette, who hails from Tinley Park, Ill., had concentrated much of his search for players in the Chicago area until those players became a little too costly to land. The recruiting trails has generally been a five-hour radius. But SJC has gone further.
The Pumas’ 53-man roster includes 11 seniors and 27 players from Indiana, 19 from Illinois, two from Puerto Rico and one each from Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.
SJC seniors are Zachary Aring (Beecher, Ill.), Riley Benner (Tri-County High School), Kyle Estand (Evergreen, Ill.), Chase Fieldhouse (Lake Central High School), Joshua Handzik (Frankfort, Ill.), Ryan Keck (Edwardsville, Ill.), Martin Napleton (LaGrange, Ill.), Brenden Rivera (Temple Terrace, Fla.), David Schurr (Plainfield, Ill.), Kevin Sloat (Manteno, Ill.) and Tasker Strobel (Avon High School).
Benner, currently SJC’s leading hitter at .427, talked about the reason he chose to become a Puma.
“My dad (Mick) came here and always had good things to say about Saint Joe,” Benner said. “I took a visit and I loved everything about it. I just couldn’t wait to get on campus my freshman year.
“It’s been nothing short of awesome.”
How did the first baseman and business administration major take the news about the school closing, taking the baseball program with it?
“We speculated for awhile what was going to happen,” Benner said of the school of about 1,000 students (more than half being athletes). “But hearing they were not going to have students in the fall was in shock. It was utter sadness. I don’t no any better words to describe it.
“I can’t imagine some of the anxiety some of (my younger teammates) must have.”
Handzik, a third baseman and business administration/economics major hitting .329, expressed his feelings for his teammates.
“My first thought went to the younger guys — the freshmen, sophomores, juniors — all these guys that I’ve seen grow and how upset I was that I was not going to be able to see them finish here and have the full experience I had here,” Handzik said.
While the team does not have captains per se, there is a team-picked leadership group and Handzik is part of that.
“At the end of the fall, we went through an evaluation to rate people on the team who you think are leaders,” Handzik. “We make sure guys are on track off the field as well as on the field.”
Winning baseball is important. But that’s not the only objective at SJC.
“We want guys walking out of here as great people,” O’Dette said. “They care about each other. They care about this institution. They are about others in our community.”
To come to St. Joseph’s, they have to care about hitting the books as much as hitting a curve ball. The Pumas have a team grade-point average of 3.4 on a 4.0 scale with nine 4.0’s and 23 players with an average of 3.8 or higher.
“Our guys have done a really good job in the classroom,” O’Dette said. “We have to have a student-athlete here. This is not an easy academic institution.”
Strobel, a left-handed pitcher and business administration major who transferred from Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., to the University of the Illinois-Chicago to Saint Joe prior to the 2016 season, wants to Pumas to go out on top.
“Let’s go win it all. Why not make it a storybook ending?,” Strobel said. “Let’s make (an ESPN) ’30 for 30’ out of it. Why not us?
“We definitely have the talent to (win a championship). We have our iffy games. But if we put all through aspects together — running, pitching, hitting — we definitely have one of the best teams in the nation.”
O’Dette has that same mindset.
“Our guys deserve to go out on top,” O’Dette said. “Our alumni deserve to see that. We want success for everybody in this program.”
Napleton, a catcher and business administration major hitting .371, is more than pleased with his decision to attend SJC.
“I love it here,” Napleton said. “I’ve grown as a man — in my personal life and on the field as a baseball player.”
Napleton wishes nothing but the best to his younger teammates who will be wearing different uniforms in the coming seasons.
“It’s bittersweet that they don’t get to go here four years like I did,” Napleton said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be proud of my guys wherever they decide to go to school.”
Advice from O’Dette has stuck with Napleton. One stands out.
“Just do the little things right,” Napleton. “That’s so important in life. A lot of times if you’re doing the little things right, the breaks go your way. If you take care of business and the small details, life is a lot easier.”
Khym, an SJC volunteer coach since 1990, gave the main reasons he keeps making the trek from Monee, Ill.
“It’s the people,” Khym said. “Since I’ve been here, it’s the people more than baseball. There’s some special against Saint Joseph’s people. I didn’t go to school here, but they have adopted me so I’m almost like an alumni. They treat me with the utmost respect.
“There’s a lot of love at this school.”
With Saint Joseph’s College announcing its closing, the 2017 baseball season will be the last for the Pumas. SJC is currently 16-6 and ranked No. 19 in the NCAA Division II poll.