Bluffton tragedy hits home for AU

Sat, 2007-03-03 09:24 -- univcomm
March 3, 2007

Tragedy cast a dark cloud over Anderson University Friday. Students and faculty made their way to class with heavy hearts, mourning deaths in AU’s extended family. Six people were killed and 29 injured early Friday morning when a bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team ran off a highway overpass near Atlanta. Bluffton plays in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and has an athletic and academic relationship with Anderson that dates back more than 35 years.

“During my 30 years at AU, they were probably our competitors 26 of those years,” said Barrett Bates, former athletic director at Anderson University. “Over the years, we’ve had a very good relationship with them. We enjoyed the competition and, certainly, what happened is a tragedy.”

The team was en route to Sarasota, Fla. for spring practice. On March 11, the Anderson baseball team will depart for a similar journey to Port Charlotte.

Bates, a former basketball coach, said Bluffton’s athletic programs have struggled in recent years, but a new outdoor facility has improved their prospects and the baseball team was on the rise.

“Coaching basketball, we always had great competition. Bluffton was always very formidable,” Bates said. “They were a good competitive school in the right way. By that I mean you didn’t have to worry about them cheating. When the game was over, the game was over.

Coach Don Brandon’s baseball team was scheduled to play a doubleheader at Bluffton April 6, then host the team on April 7. Knowing Coach James Grandey’s program, Brandon expects them to play.

“If I know those Bluffton kids, the ones who are healthy will want to play,” Brandon said, emotion tightening across his lips. “It reminded me of what happened at Marshall all those years ago. I cried back then, and I cried when I saw the movie (“We Are Marshall”). They thought it was honorable to go ahead and play, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bluffton does the same thing.”

According to The Associated Press, four students and the husband-and-wife drivers of the bus were killed. Grandey and 28 players were hospitalized, with six in serious or critical condition.

Before Friday afternoon practice, Brandon gathered his team in a huddle as assistant coach Kyle Rayl delivered a pep talk about perspective.

“You’re going to have ups and downs this season,” Rayl said. “When you’re out there making mistakes and you’re losing, remember today and remember this is just a game.”

Brandon commended his senior leadership for guiding the team’s younger players. Early Friday morning, he said, senior shortstop Pete Whiting sent an e-mail to his teammates, informing them what happened and encouraging them to pray.

“I was on my way to work and I got a phone call, so I looked it up on MSNBC,” said Whiting, 21. “I said, ‘We’ve got to start praying right now.’”

Senior centerfielder Zach Sounhein, 22, was awakened by a text message at 7:30 a.m. from an unknown 765 number he believes belongs to a fellow student.

“You get to know each other after a while,” said Sounhein of players on other teams. “I wouldn’t say we were friends, but you have a respect between you. They seemed like good guys. Some teams are just terrible, but, when the game was over, they seemed like pretty good guys.”

Senior first-baseman Andrew Butts called the incident “shocking.”

Both Anderson and Bluffton belong to the Christian Council of Colleges and Universities, which has 182 members in the United States and abroad.

“Our mission is to really help our schools connect faith and scholarship in the classroom,” said Ryan Moede, spokesman for the CCCU. “We help support professional development for faculty and staff. We help students study abroad and connect to faith. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult time for some of our schools right now.”

A list of Bluffton baseball players provided by The Associated Press includes four students from Indiana. It lists Tyler Sprunger, Lukas Baumgartner and William Grandlinard as natives of Berne and Michael Sitcler as a native of Harlan.

— Justin Schneider is a reporter for the Anderson Herald Bulletin. Story reprinted with permission.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,700 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2008, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the fourth consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 60 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.