Story by Joe Caulfield
Stephen Berger is one of the best stories the MLL has had to date. He came out of Washington College and the Eastern Shore with its rich lacrosse tradition at the DIII level. He was a three-time All-American, garnering 1st-Team honors in his junior and senior seasons, while getting the 2nd-Team nod his sophomore year. He was also the Centennial Conference Player of the Year in 2003 and 2004. Yet, he still couldn’t escape his fate of becoming “Mr. Irrelevant” in the 2004 Collegiate Draft.
“The first year I came in, it was tough. I got drafted last round, last pick, and it was awesome,” says Berger. “That final weekend you have the North-South and All-American banquets, so I wasn’t able to make it up to training camp. I finally made it up, and once it’s three or four weeks into the season, that roster’s set. There were a bunch of guys ahead of me, which was fine. I was on the practice squad, and I made a few practices.”
Riding the bench behind guys like Jay Jalbert and AJ Haugen didn’t discourage Berger.
“I just knew the following year I’m going to work really hard and go out in the next training camp,” said Berger. He got protected by the Lizards and was able to start out right away in training camp and earn his playing time.
Having to work for his goals is not something new to Berger.
“I think it might have started in high school because I went to Mount St. Joe’s in the MIAA A Conference. I was playing the best of the best in Baltimore. I learned a lot from that,” Berger said. “Then when I came to Washington, one of the great Division III programs, playing against teams like Salisbury and Gettysburg, the competition, and you needed to get better every year. You couldn’t be satisfied with how you played the year before. To me every year was just working harder, knowing that I had bigger competition every year.
“Everyone asks me why I didn’t play Division I? Well, I just wasn’t big enough in high school. I grew more or less in college and got better in college. Playing Division III was fine by me.”
Long Island Lizard head coach Jim Mule wasn’t afraid to take a chance on the smaller, crafty midfielder.
“I think he just needed a chance. Speed wasn’t the problem for him. I remember training camp last year he was as good as any player on our roster during training camp. It was just a matter of getting a chance, getting in there and playing,” said Mule. “I think he elevated his game when he was put around a lot of good players as well, playing with Jay [Jalbert], Blake Miller, and AJ Haugen last year. Those types of players brought the best out in him and helped him.”
Berger is the first to admit he needed to work on his defensive play, which he did after graduating from WAC. He added that to his capability to play any spot on the offensive end of the field.
“I was always matched up against a longpole as a mifielder, either way I like dodging from both behind or in front of the cage,” Berger said. “As long as I can be on the field, I’ll play anywhere.
“I’m a pretty crafty guy, I’m quick. I’m very unselfish. When I can go to the cage, I love going to the cage, but even more I love to just draw a slide. Make a quick move, draw the slide, bang it around and have the third pass score. To me that was my goal, if you can do that. Obviously, it’s fun to dodge and dive in front of the cage and stuff like that, but I like moving the ball as much as you can. I think team goals are so much cooler than just a dodge down the middle and a rip, you know what I mean?” Berger rhetorically questions.
“I’m not the biggest guy out there, so I’m pretty sneaky and shifty around on the crease or on the outside, and playing hard, that’s more or less my game. If a groundball’s on the ground and I’m near it, I’m definitely going to get it.”
Mule agrees with Berger’s self-assessment.
“He’s pretty good all around,” Mule said. “He’s great on the groundballs, we use him on the wing on faceoffs. He’s a real good dodger; he’s a real good shooter. He’s got a pretty complete game. He plays pretty good defense on the ball, but I think his biggest attribute is how he gets the ball on the ground, and how he plays offense. He plays reckless; he doesn’t care who he’s going against. He has a lot of confidence. I like that.
“Coming not from a Division I school, when he goes out there he feels he has something to prove. He does that in practice and in the games, and that’s the way he needs to continue to play, like he’s pissed off, and he’s trying to prove something, and I think that’s what makes him what he is today.”