College football: ACL tear ends Balts' season
Minnesota Duluth wide receiver Jason Balts was on his way to Ashland on Thursday night in preparation for season-ending knee reconstruction today.
That’s not exactly the way the UMD captain pictured his senior season.
“But that’s the nature of the game,” Balts said.
Injuries continue to mount as No. 6 UMD (6-0) looks to stay unbeaten when it hosts Southwest Minnesota State (3-3) at 1:05 p.m. Saturday on homecoming.
“It’s a big loss, tremendous,” senior cornerback Tareq Abulebbeh said of Balts. “He was living up to all the preseason expectations and more, and you can’t talk about Jason Balts without talking about his character and what type of person he is, just all the goodness he brings.”
Abulebbeh himself is questionable after suffering an injury late in the Bulldogs’ 28-17 victory last week at Augustana. Linebacker A.J. Naatz, another senior captain, will be out again this week with an ankle injury. Despite missing time, Naatz has the fourth-most tackles for a loss in the NSIC with eight.
Abulebbeh, meanwhile, has had an instant impact since transferring from Southern Illinois. Abulebbeh has five of UMD’s six interceptions this season. He had a team-high six tackles and two interceptions last week.
“Tareq is a guy who has helped change our defense,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “He’s as good of a cover guy as we’ve had in my 11 years here. He’s athletic, smart, plays hard and aggressive. He’s a corner who can make plays.”
Balts is the same way. He led the NSIC with 1,003 receiving yards last season while catching 57 passes for eight touchdowns, showing an incredible knack for one-handed catches and body control. This year he was leading the Bulldogs with 14 catches for 264 yards and four touchdowns before his injury.
Balts was returning a kick early in the second half against Bemidji State on Sept. 22 when he got stood up by one player while another player came in low.
“I just had my foot planted and got hit low,” Balts said. “Legal hit, nothing dirty or cheap about it. He just hit me in the right spot at the wrong time, and the rest is history.”
Balts tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left leg, though it wasn’t immediately certain. He was, after all, able to walk off the field, and now when people see him around campus they think he’s fine, “fool’s gold” as Balts called it.
Without Balts, UMD will rely more heavily on the likes of junior Obi Ibeneme, sophomore Johnny McCormick and senior Nate Ricci, who suffered a broken collarbone last fall and took a medical redshirt.
Balts could do the same but said it was too early to decide. The physical education major with a 3.9 grade-point average will graduate in December. He got engaged last week to UMD junior volleyball setter Emily Torve.
“I’m just taking some time to think for myself and get opinions from those closest to me,” Balts said. “I’m going to pray and really just give myself some space. I have time, which is really a good thing. I really don’t know what the next year holds.”
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Balts hails from a football-playing family from Barron, Wis.
Balts’ older brother, Justin, a former player at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has a torn ACL but has functioned well without surgery. It’s a tough ninth-month rehab.
Despite that, Balts has stayed positive. He’s the eternal optimist, just one of the many qualities his teammates admire.
“I am looking forward to it,” Balts said of surgery. “You can look at it two ways. You can be disappointed you need surgery, or you can be thankful you’re able to have surgery. There’s advances in healthcare and technology that I’m thankful for. Would I wish this upon me or anyone else? No, but that’s how are the cards are dealt, that’s how life goes. I’m thankful I’m able to take care of this now.”Weather woes
Saturday’s forecast of cloudy and 48 degrees will feel almost tropical compared to Wednesday’s drizzle, 40-degree temperatures and gail force winds off the lake.
“It was terrible,” Wiese said. “It was a rough night. There weren’t a lot of completed passes.”
Practice Wednesday was shortened, with the Bulldogs later going inside for a walkthrough in the on-campus ice rink in the Sports and Health Center, which doesn’t have ice right now. Normally UMD would use Ward Wells Field House, but that is under construction, one of several ongoing campus projects.
“It’s a great thing,” Wiese said. “There’s been a lot of progress in the last year and a half in our building.”
SW MINN. STATE (3-3) AT NO. 6 UMD (6-0)
What: NSIC football game; UMD’s homecoming
When: 1:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Malosky Stadium
Forecast: Cloudy with a high of 48 and 13 mph wind
Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9