(Photo courtesy: umterps.com)
It was tough to say which was more improbable: the weather or the score line.
The date was April 2, nearly two weeks after the official start of spring, and it was snowing in Ann Arbor, Michigan—not just light flurries, but large, thick flakes coating the field of the Big House as Michigan’s lacrosse team faced off against Maryland.
Perhaps this weather was part of the reason why the game was so tight. At least on paper, the No. 5-ranked Terrapins had a clear advantage over their opponent, a 3-5 team that did not even compete at the Division I level until 2012.
Yet here were the Wolverines, possessing the ball tied at seven with under three minutes left in the game. If they could get one past senior goalie Kyle Bernlohr here, they would be on the verge of a shocking upset.
Bernlohr made sure this did not happen.
First, he denied attackman Patrick Tracy point-blank on the crease with 2:35 to go. Just over a minute later, he stopped midfielder Mikie Schlosser’s rocket from 15 yards out. Unable to corral the rebound, he fell to the ground as Tracy gained control and appeared to have a wide-open net.
But Bernlohr, refusing to quit on the play, reached back and made a jaw-dropping one-handed stick save as Tracy was whistled for having his foot in the crease. This gave the ball back to Maryland, and midfielder Bryan Cole scored the eventual game-winner on the ensuing possession.
Kyle. Bernlohr. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/xx6VhLIIUL
— Maryland Lacrosse (@TerpsMLax) April 2, 2016
Just for good measure, Bernlohr made yet another one-on-one crease save, this time on midfielder Evan Glaser, within the final five seconds to ensure a Terps victory.
“We needed every one of them,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said of Bernlohr’s saves at the end of the game. “That’s about as good a flurry as I’ve seen in a long time.”
It is the type of performance that those involved with the program in College Park have come to expect from their keeper, a second-year starter who last year captured the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Award as the top Division I men’s lacrosse goalie in the country. Yet as good as Bernlohr has been in the past two years, there was a time when he doubted whether he would ever achieve success between the pipes for Maryland.
Based on his high school career, it would have been easy to predict that Bernlohr would star in college. The Akron, Ohio native was a four-year letter-winner at Western Reserve Academy, a prep school roughly a half hour south of Cleveland and a Midwest lacrosse powerhouse. He was named to the all-league first team three times, and ESPN ranked him as the nation’s second-best goalie recruit in his senior year.
Mat Wilson, Bernlohr’s high school coach, praised not only his keeper’s play in goal but also his impact on the team’s offensive capabilities.
“Kyle loves being the last line of defense, but people tend to overlook how important he is to our transition offense,” Wilson said in a 2010 article from the WRA News Archive about Bernlohr’s high ranking. “People get excited when he makes a crazy save, but what impresses me more as a coach is what he does with the ball after the save.”
Bernlohr committed to Maryland for the 2012 season and seemed poised to continue his sterling career at the college level. But there was a problem: the Terps already had a returning starter in net, and a pretty good one at that.
Niko Amato, who led Maryland to an appearance in the national championship game as a redshirt freshman, had firmly cemented his place in the cage by the time Bernlohr arrived on campus. Amato would go on to start four years in College Park, helping the team advance to another championship game in 2012 and winning the Kelly Award in 2014.
Bernlohr, meanwhile, remained on the sideline for virtually all of this time. He redshirted his first season and played limited minutes backing up Amato in the 2013 and 2014 campaigns.
Being a benchwarmer for the first time in his life was a struggle for Bernlohr, and he admitted that there were times when he questioned his decision to come to Maryland.
“Absolutely. It’s tough,” he said. “You come to an elite school and you really want to play and you really want to be on one of the best programs and contribute. Not being able to contribute in those early years as much as I would have liked was definitely tough.”
Instead of dwelling on the situation, Bernlohr took the time to improve his craft so that he would be ready when called upon.
“That kind of skyrocketed my work ethic, and [I] realized that I have to work a lot harder,” he said. “I really took those three years and took my game to the next level and really tried to step it up.”
Tillman recognized Bernlohr’s positive attitude given the circumstances and lauded him for striving to get better.
“Him not being able to play early in his career wasn’t something that he was doing wrong,” the coach said. “Kyle competed every day and pushed himself and challenged himself and felt like he was the best goalie…It’s a credit to him that he didn’t waste those three years.”
Once Amato graduated after the 2014 season, Bernlohr’s opportunity to be a starting college goaltender, at long last, had arrived. He was determined not to squander it.
“I knew I was prepared to step into that role, and I’m just glad that I got off to a good start in those first couple games,” he said.
Bernlohr certainly made his presence felt in his first collegiate start on February 14, 2015. He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after making 12 saves in an 8-1 victory at Navy. From there, his performances continued to impress: 12 saves against Yale. Eleven saves and just two goals allowed against Drexel. Another 11-save effort in an upset of No. 2 North Carolina.
— B1GLacrosse (@B1GLacrosse) February 16, 2015
Bernlohr’s play in goal helped Maryland to a 15-4 overall record and yet another championship game appearance. However, the Terps still could not break through in the final, losing to Denver 10-5 for their third title game defeat in five years.
Despite failing to win it all, Tillman and the rest of the Terps community had to take solace in their goalie situation. After being named a First Team All-American and winning the Kelly Award in his first season as a starter, it was safe to say that Bernlohr had effectively filled Amato’s shoes.
It has been roughly two months since the start of the 2016 season, and so far Bernlohr has shown no signs of a second-year slump. In fact, midfielder Isaiah Davis-Allen believes his play this year may be even more impressive.
“I’ve been watching him play for the last three years, and he’s pretty much been an awesome goalie ever since I’ve gotten here,” Davis-Allen said. “He had a breakout year last year, and he’s just been getting loads better after that.”
— B1GLacrosse (@B1GLacrosse) April 12, 2016
In particular, Davis-Allen complimented his keeper’s ability to stay composed in high-pressure moments of games.
“Our defense has a lot of rah-rah, alpha male-type guys, and I think Kyle brings kind of that calm to our team,” he said. “That’s been awesome—especially when you’re playing in front of thousands of people—having a goalie who is calm no matter if you’re winning or losing.”
Tillman summarized the team’s feelings on Bernlohr by saying, “We’re thankful that we have him there, and it gives us confidence going forward.”
— Lacrosse on BTN (@LaxOnBTN) April 11, 2016
After a 1-2 start to the season, Maryland has won nine in a row and holds the No. 5 ranking in the country. The team is well-positioned to make another run in hopes of bringing a men’s lacrosse championship back to College Park for the first time since 1975. This is what Bernlohr immediately talked about when asked what he hopes to accomplish individually.
“My personal goal is the team goal, and that’s just to win a national championship,” he said. “We’re a team that really doesn’t care about individual accolades or individual success. We’re just a selfless team who just wants to win it all and finally get a national championship here. It’s been too many years.”
No doubt, if the Terps do win their first title in “too many years” this Memorial Day, a major reason for it will be the goalie who stuck with the program when he easily could have quit.