Hometown Hero: Prolific Merrimack Valley sports coach Tom Burke shows no signs of stopping

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke at third base in a game against John Stark earlier this month.

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke at third base in a game against John Stark earlier this month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke talks with baserunner Avery Snarey during a game against John Stark earlier this month. MV came back and won.

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke talks with baserunner Avery Snarey during a game against John Stark earlier this month. MV came back and won. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke at third base in a game against John Stark earlier this month.

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke at third base in a game against John Stark earlier this month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke encourages his team in between innings in a game against John Stark earlier this month.

Merrimack Valley JV softball coach Tom Burke encourages his team in between innings in a game against John Stark earlier this month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By JEREMY MARGOLIS

Monitor staff

Published: 05-27-2024 10:49 PM

Modified: 05-28-2024 1:10 PM


It’s possible that no one in the region has coached more youth and high school sports games than Tom Burke.

Burke, 72, started coaching middle school basketball at St. John Regional School in 1970 at the age of 19. Since then, Burke has coached roughly 125 teams and over a thousand male and female athletes across multiple sports and age ranges. Last year, for the first time, he coached the grandchild of a former athlete.

Burke, a Concord native and longtime Penacook resident, is a Merrimack Valley legend. He has manned the sidelines of MV girls’ varsity basketball games, little league baseball diamonds and, for a year, the varsity football gridiron. Last week, from the dugout and third base coaching box of a girls’ junior varsity softball game in Pelham, he wrapped up his 54th year of coaching.

As a teenager and Bishop Brady graduate, Burke was initially drawn to coaching because his experience as a camp counselor had convinced him he liked working with kids. At first, the plan was to coach for 20 years.

“I’ve missed my mark slightly,” Burke admitted.

Over the last five decades, Burke married, raised three sons and completed two careers – retiring in 2002 following a 30-year career in the state police, and in 2020 following 18 years as Merrimack Valley’s director of transportation. But an exit plan from coaching does not seem to be in the cards.

“I don’t know how to gracefully stop,” Burke said. “And I still enjoy it.”

On a picture-perfect sunny Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, Burke appeared every bit as tuned in to the slug-fest of a JV softball game against John Stark as he would have been when his 1978 Babe Ruth baseball team ran the table, winning district, state, and regional championships, a coaching highlight.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

New Hampshire expects next year's food waste ban to increase diversion to facility market
A Concord encampment story went viral. Those living there say there’s nowhere else to go
‘He was so special and unique’ – Bow family remembers Eddie Berke, 31, after Maine boating accident
Eighteen-year-old Northfield motorcyclist killed in crash in Belmont on Friday
Eight-year-old killed in head-on crash on Route 106 in Loudon
Eight-year-old killed in head-on Loudon crash identified as Aria Enciso

On the sideline of the softball diamond, Burke was a chatterbox of wit, firmness, and encouragement.

“We can’t throw it to the base if you’re not there,” he said after the team gave up an extra base.

“Avery, where was that?” he asked after a swing-and-miss on a pitch in the dirt.

“Good scoop, Jordan,” he yelled to the catcher.

The intricacies of base running were a focal point during this game, which ended in dramatic fashion on a walk-off hit to cap a 14-13 MV win.

“I’m trying to teach aggression on the base baths so it trickles down to fielding,” Burke said.

It’s an approach that has endeared Burke to his athletes.

“He’s down to business,” said sophomore Madison Colby, before taking the mound as MV’s starting pitcher against John Stark. “He’s a serious guy, but he’s also sweet.”

Burke acknowledges that the changing times have forced his coaching style to evolve over the years.

“Back in the early 70s, if you said, ‘Hey, we’re practicing at midnight at Rolfe Park, be there,’ there was no question you were there,” Burke recalled. “You said that now, I’d be standing over there by myself.”

But the principles he brings to coaching – high expectations, a sense of humor, care for his athletes – have endured.

“He’s hard on you, he’s passionate, and he just cares so much that for some people it might come across like, ‘Oh, he’s a hard coach,’ but he just cares so much that he wants to see you succeed and wants to see you be a better person, not just through sports, but just in life,” said Carly Huckins, who has both played for and coached alongside Burke.

Burke has been recognized for his prolific coaching service with a Governor’s Volunteer Recognition Award and was named an honorary Kentucky Colonel for his community service, his son Christopher Burke said.

“He is a person that has dedicated his entire life to serving other people, whether it was in his time in the state police, his time working here for the school district, all the years that he’s coached, all the years that he’s volunteered,” Christopher said.

Burke has shared much of his coaching journey with Joe Raycraft, the father and longtime coach of the Merrimack Valley football program. The two met during Burke’s Bishop Brady days.

“He’s one in a million,” Raycraft said.

“You don’t find these people around anymore that are willing to sacrifice the time and the patience that he has with the kids, and he’s well respected in the community.”