The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


April 19, 2014

Baseball: Mifflinburg's Church returns home to honor former coach

BLOOMSBURG — Tom Church remembers his wake-up call, the moment that plotted the course for the rest of his life.

He was a starting freshman infielder at Central Columbia and, by his own admission, already too big for his britches.

That is until the day his coach took hold of his neck and acquainted Church with all four walls of the team’s equipment shed.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Church’s back slammed flush into each side. Around the horn, so to speak.

By the fourth impact — if not long before — Don Engle had the freshman’s undivided attention.

Now, Engle told Church, you will play baseball for me the right way, with the right attitude.

“I’ll never forget it,” Church recalled Saturday, “because it made me what I am.”

Church spoke just a few miles from where the shed stood, not long after his Mifflinburg squad won the consolation game in the tournament that bears Engle’s name. He began his day back there though, at his alma mater for the dedication of Don Engle Memorial Field.

“It was pretty emotional,” Church said, emotion bubbling to the surface. “Some of the things they said about him got me reminiscing back. That’s where I learned the game; that’s where I learned to coach.

“It’s sad to see him go. Everybody’s going to miss him.”

Engle died in January at age 70. His legacy extends far beyond the numbers (555 wins, 15 league titles, 10 district crowns and a state championship over three decades) amassed by a terrific coach, or the recognition afforded a longtime PIAA official, athletics director and outdoorsman.

Three of the head coaches in Saturday’s tournament played for the man: Church, a member of his 1982 state runner-up team; Central Columbia’s Brett Sarnoski, a catcher for his 1991 state champs; and Bloomsburg’s Keith Thrush.

“I think he influenced me a great deal, made me want to do this. I saw what he did for kids and I that’s what I want to do for kids,” said Church, a phys ed teacher. “(His death hit me) pretty hard. Pretty hard. He’s a special character. He made me who I am. He gives me that drive to compete and to want that from my kids. I expect a lot out of my kids, and he expected us to do well.

“As a player, I loved him.”

Of course, Engle began coaching in a different era, one during which few blinked at hands-on attitude adjustment. Church got the message — the freshman never gave thought to quitting — but he has had to adapt with the times over his own 18-year tenure at Mifflinburg.

“You can’t do that today, but kids don’t understand it’s about respect and playing the way you’re taught,” Church said. “It’s a life’s lesson. I want my kids to come back and say, ‘Coach, I understand what you were doing for me’ later in life.”

Still, Engle’s heart may have been the one thing bigger than his hands, which were truly massive for a man who was larger than life. He cared, and he wasn’t too “old school” to hide that.

“He was one of those people that would send you a letter, make sure you knew you were doing OK,” said Church. “When we went to the state championship (in 2002), he called me and said, ‘Tommy, I can’t believe you did this in two years as a head coach. I’m so proud of you.’”

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