True character: Trail Blazers' resolve comes from a coach who instills integrity in his program

John Wood Community College baseball coach Greg Wathen, left, talks with baserunner Brennen Hurley during a break in the action Saturday against Parkland at the JWCC field. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Apr. 27, 2014 12:22 am Updated: May. 11, 2014 1:15 am

Herald-Whig Sports Editor

Greg Wathen stared into the cameras and fought back the tears.

Having to explain how his John Wood Community College baseball program ended up in this situation hurt. It hurt bad. It hurt worse than any season-ending loss ever could.

The Trail Blazers were forced to forfeit 16 games this week following an eligibility audit by the National Junior College Athletic Association. The audit uncovered one player had earned a certificate of completion, not a high school diploma, which made him ineligible.

Somehow, that nugget of information slipped through the cracks when the player's eligibility was originally determined and he was allowed to enroll in the college.

The blame could fall on multiple fronts, and questions of how a high school student earns a certificate of completion but not a diploma make you scratch your head.

Yet, in Wathen's case, it broke his heart.

After an incredible run to 31 victories, the top of the MidWest Athletic Conference standings and a potential first-round bye in the Region 24 Tournament, the Trail Blazers found themselves on the outside looking in once again. It was up to the veteran coach to explain that to his players.

It was arguably the toughest thing he's ever had to do.

"To pull off what we've done so far is a real testament to the commitment, the effort, the heart, the leadership of these players," Wathen said. "I will promise you this: There is not a team that preaches more -- there may be teams that do it as much -- but there is a not a team out there that preaches more about doing things the right way, about integrity, about character, about honoring your opponent.

"We try to live those things. We try to teach them that if you live those things you'll reap the rewards. And they've done it. Then to go in, and I only pulled the sophomores in, and to have to sit there in front of nine guys and tell them that, the looks on their faces ... it was anger, it was heartbreaking."

Wathen paused right then, tears welling in the corners of his eyes.

Then his eyes settled on the group of players gathers in the adjoining room. That's when his passion and resolve re-emerged.

"If you really love your guys, you do it for them," Wathen said. "These sophomores don't get another chance. They're going to move on. To watch what this has done to them, even saying something was hard. To deal with their responses was even harder."

The way Wathen handled it -- head-on, no excuses, showing fight and no fear -- gave his players the strength to do the same.

"It's been horrible," said Brandon Genenbacher, a sophomore pitcher from Quincy High School. "It was really tough, but we had no time to sit and mope."

The Trail Blazers showed their resolve Saturday, coming from behind to beat Parkland 9-6 in the opening game of a MWAC doubleheader. The second game was postponed by weather.

"It's one game at a time," Genenbacher said. "It's the job of the sophomores to keep the freshmen into it because we still have something to play for. We still have a chance."

Wathen embraced that from the moment he met with the sophomores and explained the situation.

"He was one of the first ones to pull out a piece of paper and a pencil and start figuring out what we had to do to make the tournament," Genenbacher said.

More than anyone else, Wathen doesn't want to see the Trail Blazers' effort wasted.

"I'm not sure if everybody understands how much time that a college athlete pours into their sport," Wathen said. "Especially here at John Wood, we know we have to do even more to compete. We maybe don't have the financial resources or the number of scholarships. As I'm recruiting guys, I'm telling them we're going to make the difference up in here with the type of guy we're going to bring in and the amount of time and work we put in."

That effort had translated into another successful season. The Trail Blazers seemed to be guaranteed their fifth 30-win season in the last six years, and it was possible they could break the single-season record for victories of 36.

Those milestones are unattainable now.

"Suddenly due to no reason or anything they've done, to have that pulled out from under you, that's devastating," Wathen said.

He had to make sure it wasn't debilitating.

"There's a time of grieving for about 24 hours," Wathen said. "But the next thing is you have to get back on track because your goals are still there."

Getting into the Region 24 Tournament and winning it have to be the Trail Blazers' sole focus.

"There will be a time for anger eventually," Wathen said. "That time is not now. That's just going to get in the way."

That didn't mean this wasn't a time to be emotional.

"When (Coach Wathen) gets emotional, it's a serious thing," Genenbacher said.

This time, the emotion bore tears.

"Seeing someone cry tells you they trust you," Genenbacher said. "You know they care."

Wathen cares about his players as much as any coach can. And he cares that they find a way to make this memorable.

"This is a huge story," Wathen said. "It would be an even bigger story if we could somehow rebound from this and make a run through the tournament. That would clearly validate that what we've done here is legit this season."

Furthermore, it gives credence to what Wathen has done the last 21 years.

That's build a program defined by more than victories. It's defined by character.


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