By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Since he came to Salisbury University as the men’s lacrosse coach in 1989, Jim Berkman led the maroon and gold into the upper echelons of NCAA Division III lacrosse. The success of the program under his leadership has brought him numerous individual coaching honors such as NCAA Division III Coach of the Year and a 2013 National Lacrosse Hall of Fame induction alongside his now 12 NCAA Division III men’s lacrosse national titles.
While he continues to be a mentor for his student-athletes, it is important to remember that the roots are what make the man. Those roots for coach Berkman are within the North Country region of upstate New York, specifically Watertown, N.Y. and St. Lawrence University.
Come Oct. 7, Berkman will be inducted into the inaugural class of the North Country Sports Hall of Fame. It is a hall of fame that honors those that have made an impact on the upstate New York region both on a local and national level.
Hall of Fame President Ed Murphy says that the idea for the endeavor started when he saw a ‘Top 100 local sports figures’ countdown in a local newspaper, The Watertown Daily Times. It brought about an idea that has blossomed into a finished project a few years later.
“It told me that there was kind of an untold story to our history here. That’s really where it started,” Murphy said.
The process to receive an induction starts with nominations placed by members of the hall of fame and also some taken from the public. Based on these nominations, the list is trimmed to about 18 finalists by the board of trustees. Ballots were then sent out to their 30 members in order to vote on the inaugural class.
In the end, members voted on these ballots. If a finalist was voted in favor of on at least 60 percent of the ballots (18), then they qualified for induction. Murphy says no one was unanimous in the final selection process, but Berkman did make the cut as one of 10 names to grace the class.
“I did some preliminary research and to me he encompasses [many things.] He’s a Watertown-native, a St. Lawrence University graduate. Then he went on to do other things, which is what’s really neat. He’s kind of what we would call, amongst the other candidates, a no-brainer,” Murphy said.
Among the inaugural class is Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, Major League Lacrosse star Casey Powell and NCAA Division III National Champion basketball coach at SUNY Potsdam, Jerry Welsh.
“It’s a pretty elite group of people. They happen to all be from the North Country, but a pretty elite group of people no matter where they came from. To be considered with that group of people is pretty special, and I’m very proud of where I came from,” Berkman said.
Basketball still runs through his blood
Over his various coaching stints before taking the head coaching job at Salisbury, Berkman worked under and ran through many historical figures that he had the opportunity to work with.
A few years prior to his current position at SU, the NCAA winningest lacrosse head coach was already at Salisbury University, working as a graduate assistant under both then-men’s lacrosse head coach Hank Jancyk and also then-men’s basketball coach Ward Lambert.
Jancyk is now the current men’s lacrosse head coach at Gettysburg College where he has accrued the second largest number of wins for a coach in NCAA men’s lacrosse history, behind Berkman’s 502. Berkman sees Jancyk as potentially his most influential mentor, especially since he got his first head coaching job quickly afterwards at the age of 24.
“I learned a lot from Coach Jancyk, probably out of all my mentors in college just because he was extremely organized. He was a really good recruiter and was always trying to improve as a coach,” Berkman said.
What is interesting about Berkman’s past though is not the appearances of lacrosse, but also the many displays of basketball experience. The SU men’s lacrosse coach starred on the St. Lawrence men’s basketball team and even eventually became the head coach of his alma mater for a few seasons. This came after his one season stint as the men’s lacrosse coach at SUNY Potsdam.
Parallel to his time coaching in the North Country was Welsh’s historic run as the basketball coach at SUNY Potsdam. Berkman gained the opportunity to observe Welsh and work with him. He offered Berkman another model to learn off.
“I got to see Jerry work. He was a very unique guy. He was an older [SU men’s basketball coach] Andy Sachs. He was the fast-talking, go-get-em guy that you see in basketball. He was always able to get those recruits. He was always able to get them to do what he wanted them to do which is always hard in that world. He was really organized with practice,” Berkman said.
His basketball background formed a foundation for his future lacrosse coaching. Today Berkman’s secret to success at Salisbury may in part be the basketball influences he uses on his men’s lacrosse offenses.
Pick-plays and motion offenses are easily seen over in Sea Gull Stadium during the spring season.
“A lot of our set plays are basically quick-hitters that go into playing motion offense. They’re something you’d see in a basketball game,” Berkman said.
“It’s a lot of stuff that happens in basketball that a lot of other people don’t do in lacrosse. A lot of people don’t believe set-plays are, but we really believe they are part of the game too.”
Even though he is coaching well south of the North Country on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, his roots still shine bright within his success and 12 National Championships.
“He started here, did some amazing things as an athlete and a coach, got his foundation here, and then went on to other places too to be a legendary lacrosse coach,” Murphy said.
Berkman’s love for the game clearly spans across many sports through the decades. While basketball and lacrosse have become intertwined, soccer has blossomed over the years too, predominantly when Berkman coached the Salisbury women’s team to two Capital Athletic Conference titles and 102 wins over seven seasons from 1994-2000.
One thing to learn from Berkman is to never forget your past. Embrace it and blend the things you love into something even more beautiful such as a historic men’s lacrosse program still going strong since 1989.