Blue Jays have a lot on ‘the line’ in finale

Days after a 28-23 loss at Martin Luther on Oct. 16, and with his team reeling from a lack of consistency on the field, Westminster College head coach John Welty implemented a new emotional barometer for the Blue Jays.

It was something Welty likes to call “the line.” The rule is to not get too high or too low below said line. A happy medium is the desire.

Off-the-field hits have hurt Westminster just as bad as the ones on the field. So that makes Saturday’s season finale against Upper Midwest Athletic Conference foe St. Scholastica (6-3, 4-2 UMAC) all the more important.

“We have a chance to end up 6-4, which is better than we were a year ago,” Welty said Thursday afternoon. “Ask anybody and you want to be better than you were last year.

“We can end the season with three wins in a row, which can help us recruiting and most importantly we want to send our seniors out with a winning streak.”

The Blue Jays (5-4, 4-3 UMAC) are finishing up 2010 on a bit of a roll. Winners of consecutive games for the first time this season, Westminster will also say good-bye to its senior class at the end of the game, which will kick off at 1 p.m. at Priest Field.

Having dealt with a number of off-the-field personal issues this season, Welty is quick to say that this is the most adversity a team he coaches has dealt with in his 30 years on the job.

“Nothing’s even come close to it,” Welty said. “In a 12-week season, counting the bye week, we’ve had a team member or a relative of a team member pass away every week, so there have been a lot of highs and lows, and I can see it in how they react sometimes.”

The Blue Jays were dealt two heavy blows before the first snap of the season against Rhodes College. Daniel Schatz, brother of senior offensive lineman David Schatz, was scheduled to join the team this fall but died in a July traffic accident in St. Louis.

A little more than a month later, Blue Jays assistant Terry Cannon — affectionately called “Grandpa” — collapsed from heat stroke during practice and cracked vertebrae in his spinal cord. Cannon is rehabilitating in a Chicago facility, yet the team makes a point of talking to him after every game and staying up to date with his condition.

A number of other personal issues have come up with players — be it deaths in the family or just dealing with injuries.

Senior fullback Sam Kruse compressed a nerve in his shoulder, ending his Westminster career one week earlier than he would have liked. Senior quarterback Tyson Kankolenski has missed the last two games with prolonged concussion symptoms, though he hopes to be cleared so he can play Saturday, even if it’s to hold on an extra point.

And through it all, Welty has kept his door open to dealing with whatever life decides to throw the way of his players. Turbulence such as that has made toeing “the line” that much more important.

“It’s helped us out a lot and I give the kids credit for persevering through the trials and tribulations because it was a test of character,” Welty said. “We’re college coaches but we’re also counselors and educators, and it’s our job to help get them over the hump.”

For the most part, Westminster has been able to get over that hump both on and off the field. After consecutive October conference defeats that all but sunk their chances to make the NCAA Division III playoffs, the Blue Jays have regrouped to play inspired, consistent football.

Still, Welty’s team can’t help but look at its recent surge and think of what might have been. What if a couple of plays had gone differently against Minnesota-Morris? Just think what could have been if the offense had woken up a little earlier against Greenville.

But there’s no use in doing so. The Blue Jays have a tradition for senior players on their last practice. They stand in front of the younger players and give a testimonial. Doesn’t matter what they say, just as long as they say it, according to Welty.

Then they turn around and hit a bag in the middle of the field and jog off. The catch is that they can’t look back, symbolic of the future that lies ahead for them.

And that’s how Welty would like the Blue Jays to finish — with everything in front of them.

“There could have been a lot riding on this game, so there’s a feeling of ‘what if,’” Welty said. “We want to finish the season with three in a row and carry that over into 2011. ... This game could mean a lot.”

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