Wolfe gives way to Howard in rare Legion coaching change

LEWISTOWN – Like a proud papa, Larry Wolfe has watched the Mifflin County American Legion team grow into a perennial contender from its infancy.

Wolfe assumed the managerial role in 2003, a mere two years after the Legion program was revived in Mifflin County. Over the next decade, Wolfe guided Mifflin County to five Central Penn League titles and Region 7 tournament appearances and its only Pennsylvania State Legion Tournament berth in 2009.

Now, at age 57, Wolfe has decided the time was right to step away from coaching, leaving the legion program in the capable hands of Bernie Howard, who has experienced unrivaled success in the Mifflin County Junior Babe Ruth League.

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to go through the season with postseason and traveling,” Wolfe said. “I told (the Legion board of directors) two or three years ago that if they found someone to manage the club that I wouldn’t stand in their way.”

Wolfe certainly was willing to remain in his post until the right candidate came along. When Howard accepted the job, “It became an opportunity for me to do some fly fishing,” Wolfe joked.

Wolfe hadn’t thought about the prospects of returning as Mifflin County’s manager in 2014. He was taking some time off since Mifflin County wrapped up a 21-10 campaign this season, which including winning the CPL regular-season crown and coming within a victory of returning to states. Now, he leaves on his own terms.

“I didn’t want to make a rash decision as I was driving back from Somerset (after a game),” Wolfe explained. “Working with the Legion board has been a pleasure. I’ve never gotten any orders about who was going to play and who wasn’t going to play. No one ever second guessed me about why I used a certain strategy.”

Over the past decade, Wolfe admits he’s altered his managerial style.

“You have to be open to make changes,” he said.

That was never more evident, he explained, that at this year’s Region 7 tournament, where he was forced to compete with only nine ballplayers due to family vacations and other commitments. Wolfe shuffled his lineup and found players excelled at new positions.

“That’s something I would have never done if I hadn’t had to do it,” Wolfe said. “It’s one of those things that worked our really well.”

Ready for a challenge

Despite winning 392 games in 15 seasons at the Junior Babe Ruth level, Howard has never taken success for granted.

“It’s one thing to get to the top, but it’s another thing to stay there,” he explained. “I’ve always had that strong work ethic and our players have bought into it.”

Few, if any, could argue with his approach. Simply put, Howard’s teams just win: three state crowns, eight league titles and streaks of 73 and 47 victories. Despite the enormous success, he gives all of the credit to his players.

“No coach has ever won a game,” Howard said. “My job as a coach was make sure our players were prepared every time they took the field. That maximized their chance of success.”

His 2009 and 2010 Lewistown West teams completed undefeated regular seasons. After losing a tournament game in 2010 which ended its 73-game winning streak, Lewistown turned an won the next 47.

Howard believes coaching Junior Babe Ruth has prepared him for the Legion ranks.

“I’ve had some general discussions with Legion over the years,” Howard said. “This year – with Larry retiring – just seemed like the right time.”

Although he made the decision some time ago, Howard officially stepped down as manager of Lewistown West on Sunday and also resigned as secretary of the Mifflin County Junior Babe Ruth League.

Best friend and long-time assistant Chuck Curry will be joining Howard on the Mifflin County coaching staff.

“If I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t have probably done it,” added Howard of taking the Legion job. “New challenges are great. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity. I believe we’ve accomplished a lot at the Junior Babe Ruth level, and we have a lot to be proud of.”

Larry’s legacy

Initially, Mifflin County’s goal in Legion ball was to compete on the field with more established programs like State College. Now, Wolfe says, Mifflin County expects to beat those established programs and compete at the regional and state levels.

“It’s amazing to look at 10 years ago and to see what it is right now,” he added.

Wolfe’s most successful team was in 2009 when Mifflin County went 31-10 and made its only state appearance, falling to eventual runner-up Nor-Gwyn. That Mifflin County team also collected league and region titles.

In 2007, Mifflin County finished second in the region, losing to State College. This year’s team, which fell one win shy of making it back to states, returns all but three players.

“If Bernie can get three or four additional players – and assuming everyone comes back – he should be fine,” Wolfe said. But Wolfe is quick to point out that teenagers have other priorities at times and nothing is a given.

Coming off a regional title game appearance in 2011, Mifflin County seemed loaded the next season until a couple ballplayers, who were seniors, opted not to play.

“We should have been much better than we were in 2012,” Wolfe said. “One of my favorite sayings is that, ‘You have to dance with the girls that are there.'”

Howard: Praise for Wolfe

The toll of a job that lasts eight months out of the year was draining for Wolfe but intriguing to Howard. Wolfe spent countless hours with scouting and recruiting players and scheduling tournaments.

Some of this will be a new ballgame for Howard, who helped to organize Mifflin County’s previous venture into Legion ball in the 1970s.

“I’ll be getting my feet wet with some of the logistics,” Howard said.

Howard’s players remain his first focus. He coached many of the Legion ballplayers when they came through the Junior Babe Ruth ranks.

“The key component is for us to get the maximum amount of exposure for our players at the next level,” Howard said. “We have a tremendous amount of talent in this area. We need to get the word out that we are a serious program. Our real goal is to help every player who aspires to play (at the college level) and make sure they have that opportunity.

“Larry has done a wonderful job,” Howard added. “He certainly had a great run.”

Exposure is key

Besides Mifflin County’s success on the field, Legion ball has provided at opportunity for players to gain exposure to college coaches. Wolfe could field a star-studded lineup with those who have gone on to excel at higher levels.

That includes Indian Valley standouts A.J. Yoder and Ben Yoder, who went on to have solid careers at The Citadel and Bucknell, respectively. Lewistown product Elliot Searer found success at Penn State, as has Indian Valley’s Morgan Barger at the University of New Orleans.

There are countless others in the Division II and Division III ranks. Wolfe is honored to played a part in his players’ success.

“One of the neatest things that I’ve traditionally done every spring is seeing kids playing at a different (college) level,” Wolfe said.

This spring, he watched three of his players – Nolan Schaaf, who pitches for Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Nick Eversole and Cody Heane, who play for Bloomsburg – square off.

“Nick hit a double off Nolan, and Cody got into the game,” Wolfe said. “To see all three kids, it was such a special moment for me.”

Additionally, Wolfe saw Searer face Ben Yoder, with A.J. coaching, for Bucknell. Ben Yoder happened to be one of Howard’s top pitchers on the 15-year-old Junior Babe Ruth All-Star team which won the 2003 state title.

“Legion ball helps to prepare kids for that type of grind,” Wolfe added.

Wolfe also briefly coached Lewistown product Kalen Gearhart, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.

Up the ladder

Howard has won at every level he has coached. While his recent success has been at the Junior Babe Ruth level, he managed the 1998 Reedsville Tigers to Big Valley Little League and Super Series titles.

Over the years, Howard has coached with or against amateur baseball legends, including former Lewistown Little League manager Frank Pupo, Mount Union’s Nick Imperioli and Midd-West’s Ron Flood.

“I never expected my tour of duty (in Junior Babe Ruth) to last 15 years,” Howard said. “Time tends to fly. I took a lot of pride in the coaching aspect and my duties as league secretary.”

His passion for the game is evident in his words. He bring additional energy to an already powerful Mifflin County program, helping it to continue to reach new heights.

A baseball guy forever

Wolfe is certain baseball will remain in his future plans, although he will be watching from the bleachers. He wants to take in some legion and college games as well as minor league baseball, traveling to Altoona, Harrisburg and State College. Fly fishing and playing a few rounds of golf may also be in his future plans.

“I’m a baseball guy, so I love watching most levels of play,” Wolfe said. “I’m not going to an old folks home.”