Lerner: Berntsen never wastes a moment
Joe Gaba felt he owed it to the one player whose work ethic he so admired to sit her down after a scrimmage leading into this basketball season and offer some sagely advice.
He knew how hard Amanda Berntsen applied herself in whatever she sank her teeth into, be it in the classroom, on a soccer field or, for him, on a basketball court. She, too, owed something to someone, whose life she tried to pattern her own after in his honor.
Berntsen was just nine when her oldest brother Tyler died on July 28, 2003 in a car accident in Stoddard, New Hampshire, where he was working summer maintenance at Camp Spofford. Before his untimely passing at just 18, Tyler left a lasting impression on his sister, who took note of his commitment to his passion. A standout baseball player, he would come home from a practice and do hours of tee work, driving one ball after another to hone his swing, one he is was set to employ that coming fall at Wheaton College in Illinois.
From that point forward, Amanda vowed she, too, would live by such high standards. No time would be wasted. Tyler demanded the best of himself and so would she.
“He was my role model,” Amanda said. “He definitely influenced me. He was just like me, a perfectionist.”
But, striving for perfection is a slippery slope and Gaba recognized it. The point of his sitdown with his star point guard wasn’t for Amanda to reconsider her strive to attain it, but to stop and smell the roses along the path.
Their conversation hinged around last year’s Morris County Tournament final, in which Chatham bowed to Morris Catholic, 32-30. In the aftermath of the loss, Berntsen revealed her the depth of despair to Gaba.
“After the game, she felt she let the school down, her team down and the town down,” Gaba said. “I thought that was a huge responsibility for her to shoulder. A player learns a lot from what is one of their biggest adversarial moments. And her county final from last year was stinking in the back of her mind.”
Gaba wanted to relieve the pressure of such an unwarranted burden.
“One thing I said was you gotta have fun,” said Gaba, who in 15 years has built the Chatham girls basketball program into one of the most respected outfits in the state and boasts a career record of 299-83. “She’s worked harder than any girl I’ve coached. I said ‘I want you to enjoy the game. Don’t let your hard work get in the way of having fun. Let your hard work allow you to have fun with your teammates. Be a good teammate, have fun and your teammates will respond to you.’ Responsibility doesn’t need to be shouldered by one but by everyone.”
Berntsen admits the chat gave her a new and needed perspective.
“That talk turned a lot of things around for me,” she said. “I went home and thought about it. This is my last year playing in high school. I wanted to enjoy every second and have fun. It was time to let the team’s hard work and my individual work pay off.”
Oh, what fun Berntsen and Chatham is having. The Cougars are 12-0, fresh off extracting a measure of revenge following Friday night’s 64-49 triumph over Morris Catholic. Berntsen, who was limited to a single point in that county final loss last February, was practically undeniable this time around, pumping in 26 points on 10 of 16 shooting efficiency.
But, that should come as no surprise when you consider how unstoppable she is when she puts her mind to something.
Take academics for instance. Around the time she was in middle school, Berntsen got a grade she deemed unacceptable by her own account and vowed to never experience that kind of disappoint again. She reshaped her study habits and a scholar athlete to the highest degree was hatched.
“I became a nut about school and doing well,” she said. “I was obsessed with studying. Even simple things I would go overboard with.”
But, such a resolute approach to schoolwork is exactly the reason why Berntsen now carries around a 4.1 GPA and will be attending Princeton in the fall. She surrounded herself with friends cut from similar cloth, athletes who have struck the delicate balance between the importance of academics and sports in their lives and has remained true to her own values every step of the way.
Berntsen is paying it forward, much in the same fashion Tyler did. She is a member of PAWS (Peers Adjusting With Support), a program at Chatham where upperclassmen help freshman get acclimated to high school.
“The first thing I say is grades are the most important thing you will get out of high school,” she said. “I tell them grades come first and everything else comes after.”
But, her mentoring doesn’t stop there. She’s taken it a step further in her own way by making time in her busy schedule to work out with middle schoolers, offering whatever insight she can to help craft the next wave of scholar athletes to attend Chatham.
“At my church, Long Hill Chapel, they have a big gym in the back,” Berntsen said. “My dad and I would go so much and ask to play that they gave us the key. Younger kids come over and we shoot around. I learned a lot from them, why I love basketball and why I’m going to college to play it.”
As you get know her, you’re left to wonder if Berntsen has access to a few more hours in her day that the rest of us don’t. She spends close to three hours a night on homework, which includes an AP Psychology class that has piqued her interest.
“AP Psysch is my hardest class,” she admits “It’s a college course, using a college textbook. It’s rigorous. There’s lots of reading and detail. We’re learning about the brain and large concepts. Pysch is something I’m interested in but I’ll probably look into something with business or economics when I get to Princeton.”
Regardless of the major she chooses, rest assured, Berntsen will thrive in whatever pursuit she chooses.
“She is very focused,” her mother Dinah, said. “When she wants to do something, she sets her mind to it.”
And, that approach is in homage of a brother who would certainly be proud of what a well-rounded individual his little sister has blossomed in to.
“It was led by our oldest son, who had just an unbelievable work ethic,” said Torry, the proud father of Tyler, Jermey, 24, Amanda and her twin brother Jonathan. “And, it’s transpired to the rest of them.”
As for that thing about being a perfectionist, Amanda is willing to concede it’s impossible to ever completely attain. But, that’s not going to stop her from trying to achieve at a level as close to it as possible.
“It took a lot of time to be able to finally balance everything,” she said. “The second semester of my senior year is almost done and my grades are going to Princeton, so I have to make sure I’m keeping them up. It gets tough sometimes. I had a few mental breakdowns along the way. But, I stayed focused and determined because I wanted to get into the best school I could.
“I did study a lot but it was about time management. I was still able to do a lot with my friends. We have so much fun together. I couldn’t be happier with where I am right now.”
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner