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Around the diamond

Algonquin baseball coach retires after building legacy

Neil Burke (below) Algonquin Regional High baseball coach

Neil Burke (below) Algonquin Regional High baseball coach

Neil Burke knew as early as three or four years ago that this would be his last season as the varsity baseball coach at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough. Scheduled to retire from teaching in June, it made sense to him to step away from coaching at the same time.

He feels a little older, a little more tired than he did when he began his run as the Tomahawks head coach 26 years ago. A foot injury that makes it hard to stand for long periods of time hasn’t helped, either.

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At 58, his energy level just isn’t up to the standard he set for himself over the last three decades.

“I enjoy the game, working with the kids, the thrill of competition,” he said. “But now it’s just time to move on.”

Burke leaves Algonquin as one of the state’s most successful coaches. He compiled a record of 357-215, won 10 league titles, and took the Tomahawks to four state title games, winning in 2006. In 2011, he was inducted into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

With a quiet intensity and his soft-spoken attention to detail, Burke “put Algonquin baseball on the map,” according to his eight-year assistant, Mike Mocerino , a former standout player under Burke.

“He gets the utmost respect from his kids,” Mocerino said. “They want to play hard for him every day. He’s a great motivator. I know as a coach and former player, I had the ultimate respect playing for him because it’s clear that he really knows the game. And he shows that in the practices we run.”

Burke’s practices will be forever a part of his legacy, a window into the hard-working style of play that he holds in such high regard.

The Tomahawks always practiced for about three hours at a time, including Saturdays. Rain, snow, whatever, they were on the field — and with rubber baseballs if the conditions called for them.

“That’s what I hope to leave with the kids,” said Burke, who grew up in Southborough and was a three-sport athlete at Algonquin, playing football with Mike Sherman and baseball with Mark Fidrych .

“We were very dedicated,” Burke said. “We didn’t take days off.”

With his spring afternoons now opened up, Burke has a few plans. He looks forward to being able to go to the gym and to the pool to keep himself in shape. He also will get to spend more time with his wife, Leslie , who retired from the Marlborough public schools last year. There may even be a trip to Europe in their future.

Of course he’ll keep an eye on Algonquin baseball, too.

He hopes Mocerino will take over the team, which started out this season 2-9 but won 10 in a row and made the tournament after beating St. John’s Shrewsbury in 12 innings last month, 4-3. It was a run reminiscent of last year’s, when the Tomahawks won 10 of their last 13 games and made it all the way to the Division 1 state final before falling to Xaverian, 7-1.

“We always want it, but I think we wanted it a little bit more this year knowing it was his last year,” said senior pitcher Luke Serra . “He’s been a great coach for so many years. He’s given so much to us, we all wanted to give him one last good year.”

His final season will be one among a tapestry of coaching memories that began at Assabet Valley, where he worked for two years before taking a physical education teacher job at Algonquin and coaching JV baseball for four years. He took the varsity job in 1988.

All four of his team’s state finals appearances rank high on the list of his career highlights, especially the 2006 win over St. John’s Prep and the 1998 loss to New Bedford at Fenway Park — a game in which Mocerino, then a sophomore, pitched.

“The experience of driving up to Fenway in a school bus and taking the kids out to the field,” Burke said, “is just a very special feeling.”

With seven starters set to return, the Tomahawks figure to be a good team once again next year. But with a new chapter in his life ahead of him, Burke has made his decision and harbors no regrets.

“Maybe in the spring I’ll feel it a little bit,” he said, “but I’m ready. I’m ready.”

Job has changed

Franklin coach Dave Niro is also contemplating retirement. A coach at different levels since 1970 — including 10 seasons at Shrewsbury High and 12 at Franklin, the last nine as head coach — he has well over 200 wins at the high school level and has captured four Hockomock League titles with the Panthers.

“I’m getting kind of tired a little bit,” Niro said. “I’m still thinking about it. I know my assistant coaches want me to come back because we’ll have a good team, but I’m just kind of mentally exhausted.”

There is more paperwork, more to plan for now compared with 20 years ago. On top of tryouts, practices, and games, those off-the-field obligations can make for long seasons.

Niro, like Burke, is among the last of the state’s longtime coaches who have adapted over the decades.

There remain a few, though, especially in the Bay State Conference, who continue to return to the diamond, season after season, despite the expanding commitments.

Needham’s John Freitas (44 years), Framingham’s Dan Avery (30 years), Newton North’s Joe Siciliano (27 years) and Brookline’s Joe Campagna (21 years) continue to coach because they love it.

“It’s still fun,” said Avery, whose team finished at 6-14 this season. “I still enjoy it. We struggled this year, but it was still a good group of kids. They didn’t quit. It’s still enjoyable to me.”

Campagna, 64, plans on retiring from his job as the assistant athletic director at Brookline next year, but intends on continuing his coaching career.

“I still think I’m sharp,” he said. “I can relate to the kids, and I still really enjoy it. I’m a real baseball guy.”

Niro, a Milford resident, considers himself a “baseball guy” as well.

He headed the Milford town team for 18 years, taking a group of the area’s best down to Johnstown, Pennsylvania for a week-long tournament each summer. Future major leaguers Lou Merloni, Mark Johnson , and Mike Remlinger all played for Niro, and he is in the All-American Amateur Baseball Association Hall of Fame.

The game will never be far off for Niro, no matter what his future holds at Franklin. He plans to continue coaching at RBI Baseball Academy in Foxborough.

“I still enjoy it,” he said. “I’ll still be involved with baseball. I’m not giving it up altogether.”

Phil Perry can be reached at paperry27@gmail.com.
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