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Recognized: The Terre Haute North ball diamond recently was named in honor of former Patriot baseball coach Don Jennings.

To many people, naming Terre Haute North’s baseball complex “Jennings Field” after Don Jennings, the school’s first coach, was long overdue. But if you believe in the coincidence of numbers, maybe the timing was right after all.

To wit, the recognition ceremony was originally scheduled for May 16, but was changed to May 18 after North’s baseball game had to be rescheduled. Jennings wore No. 18 on his jersey during his coaching years.

Need more proof? Jennings coached baseball at Garfield, then North for a span of 25 years. This recognition came 25 years after he retired from coaching in 1986.

“Totally unexpected,” Jennings admitted. “I received a phone call from [North principal] Stacy Mason that a committee had been formed to name the stadium after me and it just had to be approved by the school board. I’m just glad I got to see it happen. It’s quite an honor.”

Jennings is best known for directing the 1974 North squad to a state championship, the only baseball coach to do so in Vigo County history. He compiled a 370-149 career coaching record — a winning percentage of .713 — and was inducted in the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988.

A Farmersburg native, Jennings was a track and baseball standout at Garfield (1953 graduate), competing in the state finals in the 220-yard dash and 440-yard relay. Later, he played baseball at Indiana State (1958 graduate) for legendary coach Wally Marks.

Jennings started his teaching career in the Vigo County School Corporation’s elementary physical education department in 1960, rotating to as many as 11 schools every week.

Recently, he’s compiled a list of successful local coaches with similar backgrounds to his, the likes of Herschel Allen, Larry Stuckey, Jim Cook, Bill Blankenbaker and Dick Ballinger.

Allen was a long-time assistant of Jennings at North. Ballinger was a rival coach at West Vigo, which now plays its home games at Dick Ballinger Field. Coincidentally, Jennings currently resides just a long fly ball away from Ballinger.

“With my background in elementary PE, I always coached my players at a fourth-grade level. I never told my players that at the time. I don’t know if they would appreciate it now,” Jennings laughed.

He coached baseball at Garfield for 10 years until the school closed in 1971. While at Garfield, he also coached basketball for 11 years — freshmen for one year, C team for seven years, the last three years as junior varsity coach.

When school consolidation occurred prior to the 1971-72 school year, Jennings wasn’t sure of his chances to coach baseball at North, not being assigned full-time at the high school.

“I was watching TV and my name was listed as one of the coaches hired,” Jennings recalled. “I couldn’t believe no one had let me know.”

After savoring the honor of being named North’s first baseball coach, reality set in quickly. The facility he inherited bore no resemblance to what present-day North fans take for granted.

“When the school year started, we had a mound and probably the longest, tallest backstop I’d ever seen,” Jennings said. “That was about it.”

The field also lacked grass, outfield fences, bleachers, lights, press box, electricity, home plate and pitching rubber. One thing it did have was a water fountain, strategically located about five feet from where first base was to be positioned.

“I guess they figured that would be convenient for the pitcher so he could go over and get a drink of water between innings,” Jennings joked. “I think it was placed there because plans were for the field be moved out 100 feet [from the parking lot]. But for whatever the reason, the field was placed where it is now. Cars still get bombed with foul balls.”

His insistence on purchasing sod took care of the grass problem, but other amenities were years in the making.

“They moved bleachers from the football field to the baseball field with a tractor each season, but they finally got tired of doing that,” Jennings noted. “Before we got dugouts, if it rained, the water would roll off the bills of our caps.”

As for no electricity, Jennings rigged up a generator to power a pitching machine starting in his second year at North. “It was like listening to a lawn mower running in my ear. But that pitching machine helped our hitters out a lot.”

Despite a lack of infrastructure, on the field of play, North dominated in Jennings’ first 12 years at the helm. During that span, the Patriots won 11 sectionals, eight regionals, two semistates, one state championship (1974) and one state runner-up (1983). His 1977 team was ranked No. 1 before being upset in the semistate championship game.

North won every sectional until 1979. North dominated South in those early years too, not losing to South until the regular season in 1982. “But we came back to beat them to win the sectional that year,” Jennings said.

Jennings decided to retire after his teams failed to win a sectional championship in his last three years (1984, 1985, 1986). “I thought it might be time for someone younger to take over,” he stated. “I’ve had no regrets.”

Jennings, now 76, still takes in North or Post 346 games every chance he gets.

“I drive by [Jennings Field] every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my way to play golf at The Landing,” Jennings said. “It puts a warm spot in my heart.”

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