Two years ago, some Jennings Countians were hearing that a couple school board members wanted to require their coaches to win at least 60% of their contests to have their contracts renewed.
Principal Dustin Roller thought the evaluations should be more process-oriented, so when he set out to hire an athletic director, he wanted someone with fresh ideas. He found that in Cory Stevens.
"I knew when we were hiring a new athletic director that we needed to revamp our evaluation process," Roller said. "There’s a process to finding success, but it’s not professional or college sports, where you can go grab a Tom Brady and have instant success. We grow our own players, and we wanted to make sure we were keeping our coaches and growing our coaches. When I hired Cory, I charged him with that. He took it and ran with it and has done just a tremendous job."
Stevens developed the Deserve to Win Grid as a tool for evaluating coaches. The two-page document includes 28 areas, including creating a safe environment; increasing sports opportunities for younger children; providing academic opportunities for younger children; providing academic opportunities for athletes beyond maintaining playing eligibility; understanding racial and gender discrimination; and demonstrating interpersonal relationships with athletes, parents, coworkers and administrators.
"If you focus on the process, the results should take care of themselves at the end," Stevens said. "It’s really looking at the big picture with all of the things that it takes to run a successful program."
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last month, Jennings County was honored as the Aspen Institute’s Project Play winner in the Large Rural Public School category of its Reimaging School Sports initiative.
Project Play’s mission is to convene leaders, facilitate dialogue and inspire solutions that help sports serve the public interest. Dick’s Sporting Goods awarded $20,000 grants in each of eight categories — large and small rural public high schools, large and small suburban public high schools, large and small urban public high schools, private schools and charter schools.
The other finalists in the large rural public school category were Morgan County High School in Madison, Georgia; Pender High School in Burgaw, North Carolina; and West Stokes High School in King, North Carolina.
"We’re extremely proud of the award and thankful for the Aspen Institute and Dick’s Sporting Goods for the monetary award," Stevens said. "With the money we’ve lost in the last year due to attendance and COVID restrictions, most of it is going to go into our operating budget to offset some of those losses."
Three initiatives stood out to the Aspen Institute’s project advisory board — partnering with elementary schools, expanding the leadership roles of athletes and requiring in-person physical education for freshmen.
Jennings County is hiring the community’s first elementary school athletic director to lead its Fuel Up to Play 60 program that will teach students about healthy life choices, including nutrition and physical activity.
Stevens also started a 20-member Student-Athlete Leadership Team. They were instrumental in recruiting 630 elementary and middle school kids to come to the Fuel Up to Play 60 event, which is funded by the National Dairy Association and partnered by the NFL, on May 28, the day after school was out.
"They really laid the foundation for this event," Stevens said. "They went out into the elementary schools and got kids to come to this event. It’s about teaching kids the importance of 60 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis and also a healthy lifestyle and healthy diet."
Roller, a Mitchell native, has been at Jennings County for 13 years. He has been a teacher, football coach, dean of students and assistant principal and just finished his third year as principal.
Stevens comes from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois. He was head baseball coach at Wabash College for 10 years and worked in major gift fundraising at North Central College in suburban Chicago for three years before coming to North Vernon in 2019.
"I think the big thing is No. 1, bringing in outside influences," Roller said. "I think Cory coming in has been a breath of fresh air. Cory coming from a college background and coming from the suburban Chicago area has been great."
The rural setting of Jennings County is vastly different than the Chicago suburbs. Fifty-seven percent of Jennings County students are on free or reduced lunch.
On the other hand, 44% of Jennings County students participate in sports, which is higher than the national averages of 42% of rural students, 41% of suburban students and 33% of urban students.
"It’s very different in a lot of positive ways," Stevens said. "My wife and I are extremely thankful that we were here throughout COVID because our kids got to go to school and participate in athletics. We’ve made some great relationships here, and the people are very genuine and down to earth. It’s more of a sense of community than you would find in the Chicagoland suburbs. I think we have kids in Jennings County that work more for what they’ve got."