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Eagles pull off surprise for one of their own

Mike Newmann managed some surprising efforts on the baseball field at Eagle Point High when he was an all-conference player but nothing to the degree of what he accomplished Saturday as head coach of the Eagles.

Without giving away what was going on — or having anyone else spill the beans either — Newmann was able to surprise his former head coach with a unique honor on the very field that he worked so tirelessly to build.

With the support of his administration and the Eagle Point community, Newmann offered up a surprise ceremony celebrating former coach Tom Britton and retired the number "29" in his honor prior to the Eagles' nonconference games with longtime rival Crater.

Britton coached in an official capacity in the Eagle Point program for 29 years — thus the number. He served as head coach from 1979-2005 but found the bulk of his success in the summer, where he led his American Legion A teams to three state championships and one regional crown.

"I just felt like Tom needs recognition for what he's done and continues to do," said Newmann, who played for Britton until he graduated from EP in 1999. "It was a pretty neat deal, he was totally shocked. He doesn't really like surprises and I don't know how we did it but we were able to keep it all a surprise. I think it was pretty special for him and much deserved."

Likely making things a little easier was the fact that Britton still remains close to the Eagle program. Britton, who lives in Jacksonville, travels to Eagle Point three or four times a week, mowing the grass on the baseball field and doing just about anything he can to help out a program that remains near and dear to his heart.

So when he got the call to be out at The Yard for Saturday's doubleheader, the 60-year-old Britton didn't blink.

"I thought I was going out there just to help Mike," said Britton, who began coaching at EP in 1976 as an assistant to Ron Edmonds and then assumed the head position three years later. "He called me to come out and help him do a little bit and I got out there and saw there was this big crowd and thought, 'Well what's going on here.'"

Once he began scanning the crowd, however, it didn't take long for Britton to realize it all had something to do with him.

"My whole family was there, my brothers, my boys, former coaches and people and players from all through the years," he said, "it was really cool."

Another nice touch was the fact that not only was one of his former players in one dugout coaching the Eagles on Saturday, another former player was across the way coaching the visiting Comets in head coach Jay Campbell. Longtime friend Sandee Kensinger, who has taken to umpiring the past few springs after all his work in the North Medford and Medford Mustangs programs, was also on hand to call the games.

From members of the Eagles' 1978 AA state championship team to former EPHS athletic director Fred Herrmann, who gave him his first head coaching opportunity, Britton went on and on about all the familiar faces on hand and how much the gathering meant to him.

"Mike just did a great job and went to a lot of work contacting a lot of former players and coaches and friends and seeing all those people there meant a lot," said Britton. "Just to see the people you hadn't seen in a while and helped you get to where you were, those are the things that are really kinda cool."

After making an official announcement, the Eagles unveiled a big sign that hangs off the center field fence and sports a baseball, Britton's name and the retired number 29.

"That was really nice," said Britton of the sign. "You can't help but see my name every time you sit out there now."

That the facility is even there to affix a sign to is testament to Britton's effort during his coaching career. He was instrumental in raising $1 million for the stadium, primarily through bingo profits orchestrated by Eagle Point Youth Baseball, of which he was president at the time.

"There isn't anything he hasn't done to help out this program or the players who have gone through it," said Newmann. "To this day he's still a really big part of the program."

A bit uncomfortable in the spotlight, Britton was quick to note that there could've been any number of others deserving of having their name on a sign at the ballpark.

"It's always nice to have people think of you like that and it was really special to see some old time people I hadn't seen for a long time," said Britton, "but you kinda feel uncomfortable because they try to lay a lot of stuff on you but it wasn't just me out there all those years, I had a lot of help and support. Eagle Point was always good to me and I developed a lot of friendships over the years there."

"Anybody knows when you build a complex like that or coach in a program that long, it takes a lot of people that support you and are loyal to you," he added. "You've got to like the environment you're in to stay that long and I did."

After Britton was replaced by his former top assistant, Rob Cowden, in 2005 following five straight losing seasons, he transitioned to South Medford High and coached the Panthers for three seasons from 2007-09 before resigning as the head coach. His Panther teams went a combined 32-46 and twice advanced to the state playoffs despite a greater challenge given the addition of Sheldon and South Eugene to the already baseball-rich Southern Oregon Conference.

Making his time that much more special at South Medford was that Britton got to coach his sons Mitchell and Maxwell.

"I really enjoyed that and treasured those years I had at South," he said, "but my loyalty and where I spent most of my coaching career was out in Eagle Point so that's a special place to me. My roots have always been at Eagle Point and I've always been that way. I don't want people at South mad at me but that's where I started and where I coached the longest and had some good times out there, and it's kinda nice to have closure out there."

Although the way Britton and Newmann talk, closure is the last thing the Eagles will be getting out of Saturday's ceremony.

"I plan to stay out there for a long time," said Britton. "As long as I don't get in the way and can be of help to anybody, I'll still keep doing it. You just can't take the coaching out of some of us old guys, once you have it you never lose it, so it's still nice to get out there and do that from time to time."

"It's really nice to have people in place who appreciate you and what you do," he added of Newmann and all those he comes across these days at Eagle Point. "Whenever Mike needs me I'm on call and he knows that, and the people at Eagle Point have been real receptive and allowed me to do that."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry