In January, Frederick Community College baseball coach Rodney Bennett got a message few others receive.
It was a phone call from Dwight Kotila, chair of the National Junior College Athletic Association baseball hall of fame committee, congratulating Bennett on his selection to the NJCAA Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I had to play it over three or four times. I said, ‘Did this really just happen?’” Bennett recalled earlier this month.
On Friday, Bennett will be formally enshrined in the hall of fame in a ceremony in Grand Junction, Colorado.
He’s one of few Frederick County athletic figures to be inducted into a national sports hall of fame, and the accolades he’s collected across a 21-year head coaching career with the Cougars make him more than worthy. Bennett has accumulated 756 wins in 1,055 games, carried six FCC teams to the NJCAA Division II World Series and sent more than 200 athletes to continue playing at four-year schools, with a handful of those going on to play professional ball.
“It’s the best hire I’ve ever made,” former FCC athletic director Tom Jandovitz said.
Jandovitz nominated Bennett twice for the hall of fame, with the idea first popping into his head shortly after Bennett won his 650th career game in early 2020. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, suspending hall operations for a year.
Jandovitz re-submitted Bennett’s nomination last year, completing an extensive application that included letters of recommendation from opposing coaches and athletic directors. He knew Bennett had a good chance at making it and was relieved when he texted Jandovitz the good news.
“There’s no other person that deserves it as much as he does,” Jandovitz said. “I told him, the time that he has spent away from his family and friends … to mentor all of these players, he deserves it.”
That dedication was evident to Jandovitz when Bennett pulled up a chair beside the then-athletic director in 2002 and sold himself as being the right choice to lead the Cougars.
Bennett was young, just 26 years old at the time, and full of ideas. He had come through the program himself under coach Phil Caruso, who told Bennett he should get into coaching once he finished his playing career.
So, Bennett became an assistant under Caruso in 1995. He stayed on for one year, returning home to lead the baseball team at his alma mater, James Buchanan High in Pennsylvania, before coming back to FCC as an assistant under coach Dan Taylor.
When Taylor got hired by Mars Hill College, Bennett jumped at the chance to take the position.
“The biggest takeaway from that was his passion,” Jandovitz said. “He was so passionate about FCC, about the opportunity that he had when he came here, and to give that to the student-athletes that he would be coaching. Of course, his passion for baseball, I knew that from previous conversations I had with him.”
That passion has bled through into his tenure.
Current and former players, coaches and administrators who’ve worked with Bennett highlighted his dedication to making sure his players succeed in all aspects of life. Bennett himself said he takes great pride in helping his players off the field just as much as, if not more than, on the field.
“When I [first] thought about coaching, I just thought about X’s and O’s. And I didn’t realize that coaching entailed everything, from off-campus life, home life, academics, personal issues,” Bennett said. “I coach 10 percent of the time, and the other 90 percent, I’m just trying to help people get through life.”
He’s become particularly adept at that. Take Aidan Masters as an example.
When he arrived at FCC two years ago, Masters said he struggled with the adjustment to both college life and baseball at a higher level. He turned to Bennett, and the coach rejuvenated his confidence.
Now, Masters is set to continue his baseball career at Division I Jacksonville University, and he called Bennett the best coach he’s had at any level.
“He pushes us on the field as much as anybody else, but if you have an issue you’re struggling with, he’s always there,” Masters said. “He as good off the field just as he is on.”
Stories like that have become common for players passing through Bennett’s program.
“I’ve never been with anyone that cares more about the athlete off the field,” said pitching coach Steve Insley, who’s been at FCC since before Bennett took over. “I think that’s what he does better than any coach is moving them on to the next level.”
Masters will join a list of more than 200 players under Bennett’s tutelage that went on to play at a four-year school. It’s a figure that boggles Bennett’s mind when he stops to think about it, and that fact is what he believes is most representative of being worthy of hall of fame recognition.
But his record on the field is not to be dismissed.
His Cougar teams have been nationally ranked in each of his 21 years at the helm, first breaking through to the World Series in 2007. Since then, contending for the Series has become the standard for FCC, and those playoff battles often produce memorable moments.
“You’re there competing for what I consider a lottery ticket. Winning a national championship is like winning the lottery,” Bennett said. “That feeling also generates me to keep this drive alive. … It’s addicting. Once you reach the pinnacle, you always want to go back.”
The most notable victory in Bennett’s career came in a winner-take-all game against Lackawanna College in 2015 to go to the Series. With the score knotted at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Chris Mattison — the national junior college player of the year — drilled a walk-off three-run homer to send the Cougars forward.
None of his other major wins carried the same dramatics, but Bennett continues to pile them up regardless. That includes FCC’s eighth regional title earlier in May to return to the Series for the third straight season.
Such success has prompted four-year programs to inquire about Bennett’s desire to move up in the ranks, but he said he never considered jumping ship.
“When I grew into the role, I realized that this level was my niche. I love this niche,” Bennett said. “I think this level is untapped potential everywhere, and for me, I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
He’s made the most of it, and now he has been rewarded with the highest honor in junior college baseball. Bennett will be inducted alongside Mesa (Arizona) Community College coach Tony Cirelli, LSU Eunice coach Jeff Willis and special contributor John “Tex” Tolman.
And after Friday’s ceremony, it’s right back to work. Bennett will fly to meet the Cougars at the World Series in Enid, Oklahoma, where they begin play Saturday.
There, Bennett will look to lead his squad to a national title, the last prize he has yet to claim. But whether that happens or not, he’s been immortalized as junior college baseball royalty.
The phone call from Kotila ensured it.
“The emotion of 21 years of 6 a.m. running and fundraising and practicing and recruiting, it all came to the forefront,” Bennett said. “All I could think of was all the people that made it possible for this to happen.”
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