Composure is Key for Berkman, Aurora
Kylor Berkman looked on approvingly as sophomore attackman Pat Diorka scored with 5:46 left in the third quarter to give Aurora a commanding, 14-6 lead over Mt. St. Joseph in a Midwest Lacrosse Conference game on the last day of March. It looked like the Spartans were well on their way to posting an important victory over one of the top teams in the league.
But then Aurora was nailed with three penalties in the last 2:23 of the third, allowing MSJ to narrow the margin to 14-7 heading into the final quarter. Berkman, in his first year as a head coach, felt that old familiar feeling welling up inside him.
It's not that Berkman, who was an assistant for the Spartans last year and took over after Brendan Dawson took the Widener job, is a mad man. It's just that the same fire that made him the two-time Division III midfielder of the year at Salisbury doesn't necessarily translate well to the coaching ranks.
"It starts from the top down," conceded Berkman about his loss of composure during the Mt. St. Joseph's game. "I lost my head a little bit and the guys lost their heads."
In the first 10:19 of the fourth quarter, the Lions scored seven unanswered goals to tie the game at 14 apiece. Jack Meachum saved the Spartans bacon with a late goal for the 15-14 win, but the lesson had been learned.
"I learned under my father and he's a pretty intense guy," said Berkman, who is the scion of Salisbury head man Jim Berkman. "I told myself at the beginning of the year that I'm not going to be as intense. I'm going to be into it, but I'm not going to lose my cool. But there have been certain points this year where I lost it. With playoffs coming up, I've got to realize when it is a good time to do that and when to lay off the pedal and just pull back a little bit."
Berkman and Aurora will get a chance to play a smoother game against MSJ when the two schools meet in the semifinals of the Midwest Lacrosse Conference playoffs on Wednesday. For the first time in the league's history, an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is at stake, which means if the Spartans can win their next two games, they're headed to the dance.
Assuming Aurora gets past MSJ again, it will likely face Adrian – the conference's No. 1 seed that earned a trip to the NCAAs last year out of Pool B. The Spartans lost to the Bulldogs, 8-7 in the regular season match-up, and Berkman thinks that could pay dividends.
"It wasn't a win, but mentally we know we can play with them," said Berkman, who added that Aurora hit the post with 15 seconds left. "I said in the back of my mind that it's better to lose in the regular season and have these guys itching to get back and get a little redemption in the playoffs. How it worked out is perfect. We know we can play with them, but at the same time we're not comfortable."
If the first-ever tournament berth is in the cards, it will be due to the play of rookie Max Obriecht. Listed at just 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds, Obriecht is an agile former wrestler who uses his speed to cause problems. That has helped him score 11 goals along with 11 assists, as well win 64.3 (157-for-244) of his faceoffs this year.
"He's faster than lightning and he has this unique move that not too many guys have," Berkman said of Obriecht's proficiency on faceoffs. "He kind of drags it and sidesteps; almost like a hockey move. Just because he's so quick laterally, people can't keep it up. He's been a big piece of our success this year. He's one of those game-time players; when the lights are on, he shows up."
Obriecht is helped by rookie classmate Danny Loyall, who leads the team in points (33g, 12a) from his attack position. Sophomore Corey Loubert is the Spartans top close defender while sophomore goalie Adam Holka has been clutch at various points this season.
It may not be talent that determines how things finish up for Aurora this season, however. It might just be a little composure.
"Just taking things in stride is going to be the biggest thing," Berkman said.