Dad's memory moves faceoff ace

Profile: With his late father's words as motivation, Towson midfielder Justin Berry, back from ACL surgery, pursues a school record.

College Lacrosse

March 10, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

"Let's go, Jay." That cheer used to barrel down out of the stands at Kent County High School and then Minnegan Stadium.

The voice of his late father still resonates in the head of Justin Berry, a senior midfielder on the Towson University men's lacrosse team, before he tugs at his gloves and crouches for a faceoff.

"If I don't naturally hear it, I make myself hear it," Berry said. "I don't go out there alone. My dad's with me."

Berry must be on top of his game if the 20th-ranked Tigers hope to challenge No. 3 Maryland at Minnegan Stadium today.

The Terps are in mourning after the cancer death of David Wagner's mother this week, and Berry understands what the freshman midfielder is enduring.

He isn't fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his junior season last March, but the pain of a torn anterior cruciate ligament was a trifle compared to the loss Berry and his family suffered on Sept. 9, 1998. His father, headed for Rock Hall from home in Fairlee on one of his frequent bike rides, was struck by a car and then died.

Dennis Berry was a vibrant 44, but exercise wasn't as consuming as the passion he and his wife, Judy, shared for watching their children play. When Washington College opened its swim center in 1984, Dennis Berry was hired to operate it, and both Justin and his big sister were competitive swimmers. Tasha went off to play volleyball at Western Maryland College, and Justin became a three-sport star at Kent County High.

Berry was an offensive lineman who helped Kent County to the state football tournament and spent the rest of the school year excelling at sports that had been pursued by his parents.

Before they went to Lock Haven (Pa.) State, Dennis and Judy were high school sweethearts in Doylestown, Pa. When Justin became a solid heavyweight wrestler, the only guy in the entourage big enough to warm him up was his father. His mother learned lacrosse from her father, and that was the game in which Justin, who has grown to 6 feet and 205 pounds, cast the largest shadow.

Berry is one of the best lacrosse prospects to come off the Eastern Shore, good enough to make a state prep all-star team that included the likes of Virginia's Conor Gill and Maryland's Mike Lamonica. He turned 22 last Monday and remains an unassuming kid who shakes his head at the fact that Division I coaches crossed the Bay Bridge to recruit him.

In his junior year of high school, Berry's father, by then an assistant dean for student affairs at Washington College, adopted a demanding regimen in response to unhealthy blood counts.

"My dad was a health nut," Berry said. "He didn't like to run, so he biked - 21 miles a day. He went from being a chunky guy to an impressive sight. He used to joke and say, `You had better hope you have a body like this when you're my age.' I hope I do."

Berry settled into the second midfield as a Towson freshman and was ready to blossom when tragedy struck at the start of his sophomore year.

"It was as pure an accident as it gets," Berry said of his father's fatal ride. "I played high school football with the kid who hit my father. I've yet to speak to him, and that's his choice. He's a great kid, and that made it a lot easier to swallow. If it was someone who had been drinking or doing drugs, that would be another thing, but that wasn't the case. I can't be angry. I harbor no malice."

Still settling in as Towson's coach, Tony Seaman pulled Berry out of a study hall to inform him of his father's death.

Already active as one of the team "mothers," the volunteers who coordinate tailgates and travel, Judy Berry felt the Tiger family tighten around hers.

"Tony [Seaman] brought the entire team down for the funeral," Judy Berry said. "The people in town still talk about that."

Home hung heavy on Justin's mind, and that fall semester was a blur. Protective of his mother, he explored a transfer to Division III Washington. She told him to stay put, as did his girlfriend, Towson women's player Jaime Neave.

Berry became the Tigers' faceoff ace as a sophomore and was en route to a strong junior season when his left knee buckled in practice last March 27. Three weeks later, he underwent surgery, rehab from which cost him fall ball. He favors the knee occasionally, but if Berry can win 12 faceoffs a game the rest of the way, he will become Towson's all-time faceoff leader.

"I recovered pretty quickly," Berry said. "Faceoff guys put a lot of strain on their knees. There are definitely times when I think twice about doing some things. I'm a bit slower than I was, but a little bit comes back every time I play."

His healing knee is supported by a brace that's adorned with "DB," his father's initials. He also wears a Washington College ring, which notes the master's degree in psychology his father earned in 1987.

"The trainers hate that I wear it," Berry said. "They say, `If you break a finger, we might have to cut the ring off.' I told them, `Well, then you'll have to cut it off.' "

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