BY STEVE KRAH
What can you hang your hat on?
That’s the question that Darin Mast asks of his players and the team as a whole as head baseball coach at Jimtown High School.
“Find out what you can do and do it well,” says Mast, who enters his 11th overall season with the Jimmies in 2018 (he was JV coach for five years before taking over the varsity reigns in 2013). “Keep the game simple. Baseball is complicated enough.”
Mast got his first impression of organized baseball and how to the do things when he reached Goshen High School and first played on the junior varsity for coach Brian Eldridge. Mast was called up from the to the varsity as a sophomore in 1988 and got to experience the first of three straight GHS sectional championships. He was a letterman when the Redskins reigned in 1989 and 1990.
By that time, Eldridge had taken over as head coach from Elkhart County Sports Hall of Famer Devon Hoffman.
Taking what he learned from Eldridge, Mast went to Adrian (Mich.) College, where Craig Rainey was just getting started (2018 will be his 25th season). Before Mast got to the NCAA Division III school, Adrian had suffered through an 0-22 season.
What he witnessed early on were players who were undisciplined and did not know the fundamentals.
“I was so thankful to come from a (high school) program that did roll out the baseball and just play,” says Mast.
By Mast’s junior year, he was part of the first Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association-winner in school history.
It was the beginning of a winning tradition. The current pack of Bulldogs won a record ninth straight MIAA crown. Rainey 619 (427 in conference play). Adrian went the NCAA D-III championship eight straight times (2008-15).
“I remember back then (Rainey) told us that people want to play us now, but we won’t be a door mat for long,” says Mast. “It’s neat to see someone with that passion and drive succeed.”
Mast finished up his playing career in 1994. While he completed his degree, he got his first taste of coaching when he joined Rainey’s staff and helped with some of the pitchers in the spring of 1995.
A chance to “fly solo” came Mast’s way that summer when he led a Sylvania (Ohio) Mavericks travel team.
He spent some time as a substitute teacher then got hired by Goshen Community Schools in 1996. Mast coached baseball at his alma mater for four seasons — two with the junior varsity and two with the varsity. In the summers, he joined Eldridge in a lawn mowing business. Eldridge died in 2014.
After Goshen, Mast taught and did not coach at Garrett High School for a year before returning Elkhart County as a teacher at Jimtown Junior High. He spent five years as junior varsity baseball coach. When Mike Stout wrapped his 25-year career of leading the Jimmies program after the 2012 season, Mast was promoted to head coach.
“Very instrumental” is the way Mast describes Stout’s impact on his career as a coach and educator. Not only did he learn when he was on Stout’s coaching staff, he is still a teacher in the building where Stout is principal.
“I can pop into his office anytime and run stuff my him,” says Mast. “He is very cerebral.”
While game situations often called for a quick decision, Mast has come to appreciate Stout’s ability to step back and examine all the angles.
“I’ve learned from Mike to think things through,” says Mast. “He is never too quick to react to something. Things are not as bad as young initially perceive them. When I was younger, I would over-react.”
Mast is now one who likes to prepare for what might happen.
“I like to know the answer before the question is asked,” says Mast. “What do I do if a kid can’t (pitch) seven innings?”
Helping him this season will be returning varsity assistants Jordan Smith and Lee Mast (Darin’s father), varsity staff newcomer Kevin McMahon (formerly at Mishawaka Marian) and JV coach Cory Stoner.
Volunteer Lee Mast is a former softball coach at Goshen High School and Goshen College.
“He keeps me out of trouble,” says Darin of Lee. “He’s my sounding board.
“Not a lot of people have had the opportunity to coach with the dads. That’s priceless. We’ve had good times together.”
Goshen is an IHSAA Class 4A school. Jimtown is in 3A.
“We have to the play the cards we’re dealt,” says Mast. “Some classes we’re stacked with good players.”
Some are a work-in-progress.
“We’re going to be young and inexperienced this year,” says Mast. “That’s OK if we learn and get better every time out.”
Mast plans a call-out for 2018 before Christmas break. Pre-season workouts begin January.
Then comes the time that the coach dreads.
“I have one bad day a year — Cut Day,” says Mast. “It’s hard.”
Mast talks to everyone who tries out for his program whether they make the cut or not. He offers pointers to those who might want to work on their game and try out again the following season.
“That’s something I will not compromise on,” says Mast. “That’s the right thing to do.”
Mast tries to project candidates, especially freshmen, based on their coach ability and attitude. He also expects them to have a decent amount of baseball ability. There is not enough time to teach the game from scratch.
About 40 tried out for the 2017 Jimmies. While he has no hard and fast number that he keeps, he likes to have no more than 14 on the JV to allows players a good amount of repetitions.
Jimtown is part of the 13-team Northern Indiana Conference (along with 2A school Bremen, 3A schools John Glenn, Mishawaka Marian, New Prairie, South Bend St. Joseph and South Bend Washington and 4A schools Elkhart Central, Mishawaka, Penn, South Bend Adams, South Bend Clay and South Bend Riley).
The non-conference schedule includes early-April and late-May dates with Goshen of the Northern Lakes Conference. RedHawks head coach Josh Keister was a player when Mast was on the GHS coaching staff.
Other NLC foes include Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Northridge and NorthWood. There’s also games with Northeast Corner Conference teams Fairfield and Westview, Hoosier North Athletic Conference member LaVille and independent Bethany Christian.
Jimtown plays its home contests at Booster Field, which debuted in 1976. The facility, which sports lights, has seen its share of sectional and regional games.
In order to get on the road quickly for away games, the Jimmies often use smaller buses so they can leave soon after dismissal.
No fewer than three of Mast’s former Jimtown players are now on college rosters. There’s Nick Floyd at Ball State University, Collin Gordon at Indiana University South Bend (transferred from Anderson University) and Blane Bender at Ancilla College.
Mast looks at Floyd as a measuring stick of what at D-I player looks like.
“Not everyone who comes through here is a college baseball player,” says Mast. “I owe it to the ones who can get to the next level to get them there.”
Mast notes that a college-bound player is one who is self-motivated to put in the extra work in baseball training and seeking out the program that fits them best.
With Mast, honesty is the best policy. Not looking to over-hype, he will tell it like it is when talking with players, their parents and college coaches.
He also has an open-door policy.
“If a player wants to know about playing time, I want him to come and ask me,” says Mast. “I’ll be honest. I’m not going to beat around bush.”
Darin Mast, a graduate of Goshen High School and Adrian (Mich.) College, is entering his 11th season of coaching baseball at Jimtown High School in 2018 — his sixth as head coach. (Steve Krah Photo)