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St. Joe's coach Tom Church

St. Joe's coach Tom Church

You just had your fifth child and you lose your job.

A tornado levels your home and they find your new car three blocks away, up in a tree.

Face it. Life has more bumps than an old gator's back. All we can do is take a deep breath and push on.

That's what the faculty and 1,100 students at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer are doing after the school announced Feb. 3 it will temporarily suspended operations at the end of 2016-17.

President Robert Pastoor said the private school, located on 180 acres and founded in 1889, needs $100 million to continue operating, including $20 million by June 1.

He plans to resign in May.

For men's basketball coach Tom Church, now in his fourth season, the news came while on a road trip and admittedly brought some tears to his young team, one of whom is sophomore Nick Jeffirs of Crown Point.

"When coach said we were going to be the last group of guys to ever put that jersey on, that's when it really hit guys," Jeffirs said.

Was he fighting back tears?

"Yeah, I was," Jeffirs said. "I instantly thought about the preseason and all the conditioning, all the things that brings a team together. Since we moved in in August, it's been the same group of guys together.

"We had been talking so much about next year, how we have no seniors and how high our potential was to do well together. That's what got me the most."

He paused a moment.

"We could've really done a lot of great things next year," Jeffirs said.

The men's program has a lot of history and was making a comeback. Its playing and practice facility refurbished, the scattered alumni were excited and eager to connect with the college once again.

And then came that gator with all those bumps.

"We were doing things the right way and now we feel as if the rug was tugged out from under us," Church said. "Our guys see how hard it is on the alumni. Their program's not going to be there anymore.

"It's just a really, really emotional thing because everybody's put so much work into it. To see (the end) come like this is a very sad situation. It's hard to deal with."

To his team's credit, with three home games remaining after Saturday's matchup with William Jewell College (Missouri), the Pumas have fought like the dickens to not let the inevitable closing be a distraction.

"We're playing together. We're playing hard," Church said.

Jeffirs has a difficult time believing the end is near.

"In terms of the campus, people are definitely still in shock. There's a lot of talk about where we're going to end up because we're all going to have to transfer except the seniors who are graduating," Jeffirs said.

"I don't know if it's hit everybody yet. As the (school) year winds down, it's going to be more emotional as people realize it's going to happen the closer it gets."

Jeffirs said daily life on campus has been "hectic" since the news first broke. "People are still trying to figure out how it could happen and especially how we didn't have any notice."

Ever been sucker punched? These students were.

Tom Church's first concern is his players and their futures, but you feel for him, as well. He was an assistant coach at SJC from 2007 to 2010, returned as head coach and purchased a home with his wife. They have a 2-year-old son and are expecting their second child in March.

And then Tom Church won't have a job.

St. Joseph's College isn't just another small Division II off the beaten path and hidden among cornfields.

It currently offers 16 sports for men and women.

It once served as Bears training camp from 1944 to 1974.

Among its notables are former Major League star Gil Hodges, whom the SJC baseball field is named after; Gilbert Parent, a former Canadian member of Parliament; former Chicago alderman Ed Vrdolyak; McDonald's Chief Financial Officer Peter Bensen; and president and chief operating officer John Morikis of the Sherwin-Williams Company.

St. Joe's needs a miracle, lots of prayers and someone with a big checkbook.

And they needed it yesterday.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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