Coach Ron Engle leaves a lasting legacy


A photo from the Chestnut Burr 1979 yearbook includes a letter from Coach Ron Engle to his players from that season’s team, which went to the state championship game.

By Garrett Baker and Bridget O'Toole, Round Table reporter

As players entered the Middletown High School gym on Monday, Oct. 17, for a girls basketball drop-in after school, the scene appeared to be business as usual. The doors were propped open, the basketballs sat waiting to be plucked from the grated bin and the coaches engaged in discussion on the gym floor, but for all that appeared normal, everything had changed.

After a brief warm-up, MHS girls varsity head basketball coach Amy Poffenbarger gathered the players into a circle to discuss a moment over the weekend that had left the group – and, in fact, the entire Middletown community – reeling with unexpected sorrow.

On the Saturday before the practice, Ron Engle, the 75-year-old MHS basketball coach, was planning on attending the University of Maryland football game with, among others, his longtime friend Kyle Pritts. As he passed through security on his way into the stadium, Engle went into cardiac arrest. Although he was taken to Washington Adventists Hospital in Takoma Park, where his death was officially pronounced, his passing most likely occurred where he fell and was sudden.

To the people of MHS and its community, Engle was the heart and soul of boys and girls basketball at MHS, where he spent the last 49 years shaping and shifting the program.

A graduate of Frederick High School, the coach began at MHS in 1967 and held multiple titles over his lengthy career. He was the school’s athletic director for 29 years, boys varsity basketball coach for 22 and girls junior varsity basketball coach and varsity basketball assistant for 18.

Katie Moore Hiner, who played for Engle in some of his first seasons with the girls, said, “He set the gold standard for what it meant to lead an athletic program, not just a team.”

Robert Sheffler, a friend, colleague and former player for Engle, was there from the beginning. “He immediately changed the culture at MHS,” said. “He taught us discipline. He developed in us a strong work ethic.”

Sheffler spent his junior and senior seasons playing under the MHS coach, and after traveling to Boston University for his education, returned to coach the boys junior varsity basketball team and boys varsity soccer team.

Some of the success Engle and Sheffler saw together as members of the coaching staff were in trips to the state championship game in 1973 and 1979.

“In both games, last-second shots made the difference and in both games we ended up short in the end. So close to the ultimate prize,” Sheffler said.

In addition to those trips, Engle took two more teams to the state tournament, one in 1975 and the other in 1989. Engle stepped down as head coach in 1989, after tallying a total of 337 victories.

During this time, Engle was not solely the varsity basketball coach but also the athletic director at MHS; during his tenure, he was responsible for hiring multiple legendary MHS coaches, including former varsity head football coach Tim Ambrose and track and field coach Don Boyer.

Engle also hired MHS P.E. teacher Tim Leber in 1994 as boys varsity basketball head coach, a position he held for 6 years.

“He never retired from teaching and coaching,” said Leber. “I mean who retires and then coaches for 20 more years? It’s hard to even quantify what he did in this community.”

He also paved the way for other athletic directors at MHS, including Ambrose and currently, Mike DeSimone.

“Over time, he filled the role of a mentor for me when I became the athletic director,” DeSimone said. “His knowledge of MHS and the old MVAL and just how things are done in the community was special for me because it gave me a foundation for where we’re trying to go with MHS athletics.”

Engle may have stepped aside as athletic director in 1996, but in true Ron Engle fashion, he could never keep away from the game he loved. He returned to the school in 1998, this time taking over as the girls junior varsity basketball head coach and assisting with the girls varsity team.

He was once given the nickname “The Wizard of Woodmere”, in honor of the neighborhood in which he resided and in comparison to the famed UCLA head coach John Wooden, known as “The Wizard of Westwood”.

In his second run at MHS, the wizard was finally able to capture the elusive state championship that he had missed his first 22 years in the program. In 2006 he helped lead a team to the finals and was able to win, beating Milford Mill Academy. The girls varsity head coach at the time was Bill Miskell, a former player of Engle’s on the 1979 team that went to the state championship game.

The men and women on whom the late coach had an impact, both as a leader and a person, regarded him with the utmost respect.

“His impact was astronomical,” said Kara Nelson, MHS P.E. teacher and former girls varsity basketball head coach from 1998 to 2003. “He pretty much touched the lives of both boys and girls basketball players during his entire time here.”

Hiner said, “He was a coach in every sense of the word. He was a listening ear and a word of advice or motivation when I needed it. He was my friend, my role model, and my advocate.”

MHS junior Helen Holt had Engle as a coach her first two years of high school and said, “Coach Engle would love to have an undefeated season or win a championship or something, but he just really wants you to become a better player and person, and if that happens, he will be happy.”

MHS sophomore Sarah O’Toole added, “He inspired so many people like myself. He is one of those rarities in life. You had to take in every word he said because it was so valuable,”

Engle’s untimely and unexpected death left friends and family stunned and saddened.

“I was totally devastated,” Hiner said. “My sense of loss was compounded by the fact that I knew how many others would be truly mourning along with me.”

“When I first heard the news he had passed, I was shocked,” Leber said. “He was so healthy; he did everything that I try to teach kids in health class to do, so no one expected it. Just that he was gone so quickly was so shocking.”

Although he is gone, the coach, athletic director and man who was Ron Engle is immortalized in the MHS culture and community. His legacy carries on through the people he touched and the MHS court that was named in his honor.

Sheffler added, “Coach Engle became my life-long mentor, for I am still learning from him, even in his death.”