News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 19, 2014

Echoes of '74: Former North championship team sees the same drive in this year's squad

TERRE HAUTE — State championships don’t come often to Terre Haute high schools. Since township and other schools were consolidated into a single school district more than 40 years ago, just a handful of state title trophies have been placed on the shelves of North, South or West Vigo.

One of the earliest of those trophies was earned by the Terre Haute North baseball squad in 1974. The team smashed its opponent, Indianapolis Marshall, 12-1 in the state championship game played at Columbian Park in Lafayette on June 24.

The date was almost exactly 40 years ago.

Now, half-a-lifetime later, North Vigo is again vying for the state championship in the Class 4A division. One of the team’s assistant coaches, Fay Spetter, was a star on the North team four decades ago.

“This [current] team reminds me of the '74 team,” Spetter said. “They’re all friends. They all hang out together. And that’s what we did in '74.”

Spetter and other former Patriot ball players hope the similarities don’t end there. They sincerely hope North Vigo will have earned a second state title by the end of the day today. North plays Noblesville for the title at 7:30 p.m. at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

One man sitting in the stands cheering for North will be Don Jennings, the coach who led the Patriots to their state title in '74. Jennings coached at North from the day it opened in 1971 until 1986, winning at least the sectional title nearly each of those years. His team was the state runner up in 1983. A few years ago, North named its baseball field in his honor.

“We will be there,” Jennings said. He and his wife of 56 years, Lou Anne, have watched a lot of baseball together and will be among the big crowd expected to be cheering for the Patriots tonight. “We’re really looking forward to it.”

If he could give a single piece of advice to the North squad, Jennings said he would urge them to play the game as if it were just another game. When you pump yourself up too much, you can make mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t, he said.

That doesn’t mean to play without intensity, however. Jennings said he always told his teams to get the opponent’s first batter out. And he’d always tell his players that the next ball is going to be hit to them, so know in advance what to do with it.

The championship game in 1974 may have seemed a little anticlimactic. North scored five runs in the first inning, all but putting the game away early. Pitcher Nate Mills gave up only four hits, according to newspaper accounts printed at the time.

“It was the best game he’d pitched all year,” Jennings said, speaking from his Terre Haute home Thursday.

In those days, the state final games took place on a single day, meaning North and Indianapolis Marshall had played earlier contests the day they squared off. North defeated Evansville Reitz Memorial 6-4 to get to the final. Marshall defeated South Bend Washington.

“It was a great experience,” said Mark Bradford, North’s third baseman who belted a key two-run triple in the title contest. He credited much of the team’s success to the coach and key seniors, including Curtis Phillips, Mills and Spetter. He also recalls the late Carl Riddle, North’s long-time principal, attended practically every game.

“He was always there,” Bradford said.

Jackie Smith, a center fielder for the Patriots in '74, also recalled the team leadership of Spetter, Phillips and Mills. “We just followed their lead,” said Smith, who now lives in southern Illinois. Smith was on the 1975 team that lost in the semi-state, just one win away from a return to the state championship.

“I can still remember standing in center field watching Nate carve 'em up,” Smith said. “He’d come from all different directions with his pitches.”

Jim Ward, a backup second baseman on the '74 squad, decided to go into coaching after graduating from North with a state title win. He coached nearly 30 years of baseball at the high school level in Kentucky. Ward uses the 1974 experience quite a lot in his coaching, he said.

Jennings made sure all of his players were able to get into that championship game 40 years ago. He wanted every player to have a chance. Ward recalls hitting a long fly ball to left field he hoped would clear the fence. It didn’t, but at least he connected.

“Nobody wanted to strike out,” Ward recalled.

Looking to tonight’s game, Bradford may have put it best when asked his advice for the current Patriot players.

“Relax and enjoy the ride,” he said, adding that the experience is one that will help shape the rest of their lives. It will give them confidence when they face future challenges, he said. “It taught us a lot about working together,” he said. “Use it for life.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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