BLOOMINGTON — When Andrew Apel suffered an ACL tear in his knee against Wheaton on Sept. 30, the Illinois Wesleyan senior tight end's career appeared in jeopardy.
However, Apel will make his return when the Titans conclude the regular season against Millikin at 1 p.m. Saturday with a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin championship and NCAA Division III playoff spot on the line at Tucci Stadium.
"Looking back at the injury when it first happened, my coaches and teammates believed it wasn't the end for me," said Apel, an IWU captain. "That was kind of a huge driving force because, from the outside looking in, it's easy to look at it thinking it could be the end.
"That helped me stay motivated and stay hungry to get back. Now that I'm back, I want to help in any way I can."
IWU, ranked No. 11 in the D3football.com poll, comes in 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the CCIW, tied for first place with North Central. A victory by the Titans, who are coming off a bye week, would secure their first league crown since 2009.
If IWU and North Central tie for the title, the Cardinals would be the CCIW's automatic playoff qualifier based on their 26-13 win over the Titans on Sept. 16. IWU likely would gain an at-large selection.
Like the Titans, Millikin (7-2, 5-2) still harbors playoff hopes. The Big Blue could finish tied for second in the CCIW with IWU and Wheaton by beating the Titans. Millikin also beat Wheaton earlier this season.
Apel practiced in full contact for the first time Wednesday with a brace on his knee. Despite missing the last four games, Apel is IWU's fourth-leading receiver with 14 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
How much action Apel sees in Saturday's game has not been determined. IWU coach Norm Eash is just glad to have No. 80 back in uniform.
"He was a big part of our offense. Hopefully that part we had so much success with in our offense comes back this week," said Eash. "It just adds another dimension they (the Big Blue) have to defend."
Apel will have surgery after the season is finished. Until then, he is ready to play some more football.
"I feel good. I've been doing a lot of stuff without a brace, so now I'm excited to get a brace and actually hit people," he said. "In my mind I have no limitations. I'm just excited to test it this weekend."
21 seniors to be honored: IWU will honor 21 seniors in a pregame ceremony Saturday.
Besides Apel, the other seniors are Jack Warner, Kieron Swain, Josh Akin, Rodney Quansah, Dennis Bresingham, Brinton Wilkey, Anthony Sciarini, Erich Lieser, Jake Robbins, Jeremy Giderof, Jordan Hassan, James Burnell, Nick Monferdini, Mike Mulcrone, Connor Melvin, Chris Collins, James Edmond, Brian Johnson, Justin Krzeczkowski and John Nolan.
"This is a big game for our team considering we were 4-6 our freshman year, considering what our class has done and the legacy we can leave," said Wilkey, a three-year starter at strong safety who moved to linebacker this season.
NCAA pairings announced: The 32-team NCAA Division III playoff bracket will be revealed at 4:30 p.m. Sunday on ncaa.com.
IWU last qualified for the playoffs in 2013 as an at-large team with a 9-1 record. The Titans had a first-round home game and lost to Wartburg (Iowa), 41-7.
Eash didn't want to speculate if IWU would get a game at Tucci Stadium next Saturday should it qualify for the playoffs.
"Our focus right now is to play Millikin and to beat Millikin," he said. "All those other things will take care of themselves."
Eash going for No. 200: While Eash's focus is getting the Titans a CCIW title and playoff berth, a victory Saturday would be historic for him as well.
Eash has compiled a 199-102-1 record in 31 years as head coach of his alma mater. There are eight active Division III coaches with 200 career victories.
Beating Millikin also would tie Eash with his coach at IWU, Don Larson (1954-86), for most wins in CCIW history with 142.