At No. 1 in III, Salisbury arrives Men's lacrosse team low-keys high perch

April 13, 1991|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Correspondent

SALISBURY -- Where are all the celebrations? No "Jim Berkman for Mayor" signs? Whatever happened to Sea Gulls Day? Did the No. 1 ranking catch them by surprise?

"This No. 1 ranking is awesome, but the euphoria lasts about two days," said Scott Bentkowski, Salisbury State's senior goalkeeper, as the Sea Gulls prepare to be host to West Chester today (1 p.m.). " 'Cause once you sit down and start thinking about it, you have now become the team everyone wants to beat."

"Now you've got to work twice as hard as before. Believe me, if we win the national championship, this place will go nuts."

The Sea Gulls still are the topic of many conversations at the Plump Parrott and the Circle Bar, two off-campus hot spots on Route 13 through Salisbury.

But it has been business as usual for Salisbury (10-0) this week, even though the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Division III poll released Sunday had the Sea Gulls ranked No. 1 for the first time since the school started playing lacrosse in 1974.

There has been no bragging or predictions made by the Sea Gulls. Not a whisper of trash talking. And, at times, they even seem embarrassed by it all.

It's a reflection of the attitude that coach Jim Berkman has preferred and stressed from Day 1 when he took over the program three years ago.

And the humility also may come from Hobartitis, a common disease in Division III. Before losing to Ohio Wesleyan last week, Hobart had won 34 straight Division III games and 11 consecutive national championships.

Hobart (2-2) dropped to No. 4 last week, but everybody still is looking back.

"The other top five teams are good, but Hobart has a great tradition," said senior attackman Eric Ungleich. "There is no doubt in my mind who is the team to beat."

Berkman said: "I'm from the old school where you worked hard and you only got better by practicing. The players realize just as much as I do what it will take to remain No. 1 and win a national championship. I'd rather say I am No. 1 on May 18 [Division III championship game] instead of saying we were No. 1 on April 10."

Maybe no other person deserves more credit for Salisbury's rise to the top than Berkman, 31, who, before coming to Salisbury, was the head basketball and assistant lacrosse coach at St. Lawrence.

Salisbury had a very successful program in the early '80s, reaching the NCAA semifinals from 1980 through 1982, but the program struggled in the middle part of the decade. After the 1986 season, Salisbury was put on probation for a year because it had players who were not full-time students.

"The biggest thing Jim has brought to this program is consistency," said assistant coach Tim Berquist, who played for Salisbury from 1986 through 1989. "We finally have the same head figure back year in and year out."

There is more.

Berkman has brought in transfer students to transform his club from just a playoff team into a national championship contender. The Sea Gulls' starting attack of seniors Rick Berkman, Ungleich and Rusty Pritzlaff and midfield of Kevin Hohner, Chris Boyle and Jeff Chenowith are transfers.

Some came from the junior-college ranks. Others are Division I castoffs.

Either way, the mix of predominantly Maryland- and New York-born players has been molded into one of the nation's best teams.

According to Jim Berkman, Salisbury's required Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 1,040 for incoming freshmen also drove him to bring in transfers.

"An in-state student can still get housing and a quality education here for about $6,000 per year, which makes it an attractive offer," said Berkman. "We just couldn't get the high number of freshmen in, even though we have some standouts on the roster."

"It's a gamble, sort of, with the transfers, but as soon as they get here, I tell them they may have been an All-American or All-World at another school, but they have to prove themselves here," said Berkman.

"One thing I really like about this team is that they can get a lot better because they have not been together that long. When I first came here, we had four or five good players. Now, we just have so much depth that we can go two and three deep in the midfield without dropping off much in talent."

That's why Salisbury plays such a fast-paced game. The Sea Gulls are a team that relies on the transition, pressure defense and a lot of unselfishness.

The team has scored 196 goals, and 128 have been assisted. Rick Berkman, the coach's nephew, whose strength is moving without the ball, leads the team with 39 goals and 31 assists. Ungleich, an innovator off unsettled situations, is second with 35 goals and 34 assists. Pritzlaff, an occasional crease attackman, has 49 points.

The starting midfield unit has a number of long-range shooters, and, defensively, Salisbury has a reputation of being very physical, especially defenders Chris Andrews, Mike Esham and Tony Sposato. Esham and Sposato usually take turns knocking around the other team's top scorer.

Bentkowski starts the first half in goal, and Geoff Sanders replaces him for the start of the second. They are nearly equal in talent -- Bentkowski has 80 saves and Sanders has 81. Bentkowski has allowed 51 goals and Sanders 31.

"When we [transfers] come in, most of us know we've got to get it done in a short time," said Rick Berkman.

"In the coach's first year, we just wanted to get to the playoffs. Then, last year, we wanted to make it to the semifinals, which we accomplished. Now, this year, we want to take it a step further, and eventually win it all."

And, finally, let the celebrations begin.

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