Mark Bennett: With prep, Terre Haute can handle NCAA baseball, other big events

Apr. 26—Terre Haute has shown it can walk and chew gum at the same time before.

Two of the city's most popular festivals, Blues at the Crossroads and Oktoberfest, occurred simultaneously downtown, barely two blocks apart, in 2008. The sadly now-bygone Blues Fest drew nearly 10,000 fans, and Oktoberfest matched its previous year's turnout. Lots of people had fun. No clashes of shades-wearing blues fans and lederhosen-clad polka loyalists unfolded either. Hauteans pulled it off.

Another entertainment challenge may await the community in June.

If so, Terre Haute will be chewing two cheeks-full of gum and walking a half-marathon at once. Community leaders are confident it can be done.

A couple of theme songs might help. Maybe "Volunteers" by Jefferson Airplane and "Hotel California" by The Eagles. Volunteers and hotel rooms, especially those in surrounding counties (not as distant as California, though) are needed. Public safety crews will be busy, too.

The Terre Haute Air Show is coming to Terre Haute Regional Airport on June 1-2. More than 20,000 people are expected to attend each day.

And, Indiana State University's powerhouse baseball team could, once again, advance to the NCAA Tournament and be selected to host a four-team regional. If those stars align as they did in 2023, the NCAA regional would run from Friday, May 31 to Sunday, June 2 or possibly Monday, June 3. Last year's regional averaged 1,964 fans per day.

The air show and baseball regional would overlap.

If ISU wins that regional, as it did in '23, it could qualify to host the next round — a super-regional — June 7-9, or June 8-10. The university controversially withdrew its bid to host last season's super-regional, and the higher-seeded Sycamores instead traveled to TCU's home stadium and lost two close games to the Horned Frogs in that best-of-three series. ISU cited difficulty in properly hosting the regional and the Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games simultaneously as the reason for withdrawing its super-regional bid.

The campus has been the site of the state Special Olympics since 1970.

This year's Special Olympics Indiana Games are June 7-9 at ISU, and would coincide with a super-regional. Special Olympics involves about 2,800 competitors, 700 coaches and 1,500 mostly local volunteers. A NCAA baseball super-regional involves just two teams playing two or three games, rather than four teams playing a total of six or seven games in a regional; at least half or more of the fans would be Sycamore backers.

ISU is submitting bids to host a possible NCAA baseball regional and super-regional, should the Sycamores advance, said interim athletic director Angie Lansing. The overlap with the air show and Special Olympics won't alter that plan this time, she said.

"There is overlap with both events, but we will work to minimize our operational conflicts," Lansing said last week.

Of course, a NCAA Tournament berth isn't guaranteed for ISU, and further hurdles must be cleared to become a regional or super-regional host site. But the Sycamores' late-April status looks promising.

Going into this weekend's Missouri Valley Conference series at Southern Illinois, Coach Mitch Hannahs' team stands alone atop the MVC standings with records of 29-8 overall and 12-3 in the conference. The Sycamores cracked the DI Baseball Top 25 this week at No. 25, and are also ranked 24th nationally by Baseball America and 25th in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Still, 14 regular-season games remain for ISU, including 12 in the MVC. A potentially decisive three-game series with second-place Evansville (22-18, 10-5) unfolds May 10-12 at Bob Warn Field.

Last season, ISU ended the regular season in the top 10 of the Division I power rankings and with strong records of 38-14 overall and 24-3 in the Valley. ISU then earned an automatic NCAA Tournament berth by winning the MVC Tournament title at Bob Warn Field. The NCAA Selection Committee then seeded the Sycamores 14th overall out of 64 teams and accepted ISU's bid to host a regional.

ISU had never hosted a NCAA baseball regional. Indiana State was the only mid-major host — aside from perennial national power Coastal Carolina. Playing again at home, Hannahs' team won that regional, which included North Carolina, Iowa and Wright State. Vocal, engaged crowds packed Bob Warn Field throughout that weekend, but by comparison the Terre Haute NCAA Regional's average attendance of 1,964 fans per game was the lowest of the 16 sites, according to Jeff Williams, the NCAA's associate director of media relations and statistics.

The regional title advanced ISU to the 2023 Sweet Sixteen and the super-regional round. That pitted ISU against lesser-seeded TCU in a best-of-three series June 9-11, with the winner going to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The only Sycamore team to reach Omaha was Warn's 1986 squad, which included Hannahs as a freshman second baseman. As the better-seed, ISU was entitled to host the super-regional. But former Sycamore Athletic Director Sherard Clinkscales said the university withdrew the bid to host on May 27 — a week before the regional was played — because of the overlapping commitment to host the Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games and concerns about staffing and accommodations.

To say the least, a firestorm of displeasure followed, with community leaders insisting the necessary resources could've been provided.

So, instead of playing at their own 2,000-seat ballpark for the third consecutive postseason tournament weekend, the Sycamores played the super-regional at TCU's home field — Lupton Baseball Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas. A healthy contingent of Sycamore fans also made the trek, but most of each game's 8,900 fans were Horned Frogs' backers. ISU lost two close games 4-1 and 6-4. The Sycamores finished 45-17. TCU went to Omaha.

Lessons of '23 can help

A year later, Terre Haute and ISU have the lessons of 2023 to help prepare for the possibility of hosting a 2024 regional or super-regional. Other dynamics have changed, too. ISU parted ways with Clinkscales for undefined reasons on Dec. 31. University President Deborah Curtis agreed to an early retirement, and new president Michael Godard takes over on Saturday, June 1. That's the same weekend as a possible NCAA baseball regional at Bob Warn Field and the Terre Haute Air Show.

A possible NCAA super-regional and Special Olympics Indiana would be the following weekend.

Terre Haute can find ways to handle all the events, said Karen Dyer, executive director of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Everyone's on board with doing whatever is needed for it to be successful, but I'm not sure what that means right now," Dyer said. She stepped into her role at the THCVB earlier this month, after longtime leader Dave Patterson retired.

"We'll be glad to help in any way we can," Dyer said.

Brandon Sakbun, Terre Haute's first-year mayor, said the potential overlap of major events is under discussion.

"We have been in contact with Indiana State University regarding the possibilities of an air show, the Special Olympics and ISU baseball all occurring within a few short days," Sakbun said last week. He added, "The city rallied behind the university during this [2023-24] season's incredible basketball season. We stand prepared to assist the university, if needed."

Where to stay?

In terms of lodging, Terre Haute has a combined 2,000 hotel and motel rooms. That count is down by about 100 following the demise of the Pear Tree Inn, Dyer said. Another 122 rooms will be available once the Terre Haute Casino Resort hotel opens May 15, but those are for guests 18 and older, she added.

The air show alone will attract an estimated 20,000-plus visitors per day, weather permitting. A portion of air show goers will be "day trippers," driving in and back home the same day, Dyer said.

As with other big-event weekends, many visitors will stay in surrounding communities' hotels when those in Terre Haute are full, Dyer said.

Aviation fans traveled from Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis and other regions for Terre Haute's last air show in 2018, said Rick Burger, president of the Terre Haute Regional Airport Board. Local rooms are already booked solid for this year, Burger added, and those in outlying towns will be options. "Their hotels are filling up because of this air show," he said.

The NCAA criteria for selecting baseball regional and super-regional host sites includes lodging requirements to accommodate the visiting teams. It is recommended that all be housed in "separate properties." Those hotels are required to be "within no more than 30 miles of the competition site" at fair market rates. Also, a new twist this season is that host schools can't house participating teams in campus dorms, as happened at the University of Kentucky in 2023. There are "no exceptions to this policy," according to the NCAA manual supplied by Williams.

Lodging in some nearby towns would qualify, such as Rockville, Sullivan, Brazil and Clinton, as well as Paris and Marshall in Illinois.

Incoming fans could find places perhaps just beyond those. Patterson, the now-retired tourism executive director, said Terre Haute has in the past hosted events with more incoming people than hotel rooms in the city and made it work. He cited as an example last year's Nike Cross Country Town Twilight meet, which brought 7,000 visitors to the city. All found lodging, he said.

An air show and NCAA baseball regional, as well as the Special Olympics state games and a NCAA super-regional can coincide, Patterson said.

"[Terre Haute] can do that simultaneously," said Patterson, now living in Florida. "I think our community is capable of pulling off both."

The period for potential host schools to submit regional and super-regional bids began last Friday and continues through May 20, Williams said. The selections will be announced May 26.

Help wanted at special events

As for volunteers, those are needed for the Special Olympics, air show and possible NCAA baseball tourneys.

Special Olympics needs 1,500 volunteers, and no previous experience is required, said Jeff Mohler, president and CEO of Special Olympics Indiana. This inspiring event has happened in Terre Haute almost every year since 1970, and the SOI team knows the drill well. Volunteers assist in the various sports involved at both ISU and Rose-Hulman campuses. They escort athletes, measure track distances, score the bocce and volleyball, time the swimmers, manage the bowling lanes and control crowds at the cycling.

Volunteers are scheduled in four-hour blocks, making it possible for them to also take in NCAA baseball or the air show.

"They can join us for a few hours, and attend those other activities and enjoy their weekend," Mohler said. Those wishing to volunteer can do so online at

Special Olympians win the hearts of volunteers and others, even hundreds of miles away. When word of ISU's declination of last year's super-regional circulated among TCU fans, they contributed $80,000 to Special Olympics Indiana. "We never really expected it, but it was incredible to experience," Mohler said of the Texas donations.

About 800 volunteers assisted with the last Terre Haute Air Show in 2018, Burger explained, and efforts to assemble a similar force are well underway.

"We have a good, solid base of volunteers now and keep building on that," Burger said.

As for a potential NCAA baseball regional or super-regional, "Yes, we will need volunteers," said Lansing, ISU's interim AD. Those would assist a crew of ISU staff that totaled about 25 for last year's regional.

Assembling volunteers and resources to conduct NCAA baseball tourneys alongside the long-scheduled air show and Special Olympics is doable for the community, said Vigo County Commissioner Mark Clinkenbeard, should ISU get that opportunity again. A sponsor of Sycamore athletics and an avid ISU supporter, Clinkenbeard publicly disagreed with the university's decision to turn down the 2023 super-regional.

"The big thing is communication," Clinkenbeard said, "and we saw last year how important that is."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or