Denny's always open...
11th of a series...
By CHRIS LARICK
When Denny Berrier played basketball at St. John High School, coaches Dan McGinnis, Roland "Smoky" Cinciarelli and Don Cannell could always count on the youngster providing a kind of security blanket for the Heralds by putting forth his best effort as a scorer and defender during a career that ranged from 1963-67.
When he came back to Ashtabula in 1971 after a productive college career at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., Cannell had enough faith in Berrier's knowledge of the game and his character that he was willing to take a chance on the 23-year-old to succeed Paul Kopko as St. John's new head basketball coach for the 1972-73 season.
Berrier repaid Cannell's show of faith over and over during a coaching career that ran through 1980, producing solid teams that were able to hold their own against the much bigger schools they faced on a nightly basis in the Northeastern Conference.
It was not surprising that Berrier moved from the coaching realm into the insurance business, helping to meet the needs of friends throughout Ashtabula and Lake counties in securing the lives and futures of their families. Even though he has lived in the Columbus area for nearly a quarter century, Berrier has not lost his affection for the area and has maintained those links to his early years, all the while meeting the needs of individuals and families in the Columbus area through his continuing work for the New York Life Insurance Co.
Even though it is the corporate motto of one of his competitors, it can well be said that people throughout his life have been in good hands through their connection to Denny Berrier. Just ask people who may have been his competitors on the court, but number themselves as friends for life.
Several of them will be joining Berrier on Sunday in the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame and can attest to his worthiness. It is not a surprise to them that Berrier is the first St. John player to enter the ACBF hall.
Just ask Cannell, who is doubly pleased at Berrier's selection because he will be one of those joining him in that distinction this year.
"I remember talking to Dan McGinnis one day and he told me (ACBF Hall of Famer) Bob Ball (of Ashtabula said, ‘Someday that kid is going to make a good coach.' I think that was because Denny was an outstanding person, one with such great character. He had been a great player for us, but he also had a background in the fundamentals, so when the time came, I said, ‘Let's take a chance on this kid.'
"Denny was also an outstanding assistant football coach and he was a real good teacher. He had the character you look for when you hire a coach and teacher. So many times, they just sort of put in their time when their season is over. We were lucky to have people like Denny who were great teachers and great coaches."
Ron Richards, who will also join Berrier in the ACBF hall this year, went to battle many a night during his playing career at Conneaut against him before they both graduated in 1967.
"Denny was always very competitive," he said. "I always looked forward to playing him. We started playing each other when we were in the eighth grade. All that time, we had really good battles."
Ed Armstrong, another hall of fame inductee this year, had to deal with Berrier as a player and coach when Armstrong was at Harbor.
"Denny was a great player and a great competitor," he said. "He was tough player and a real gentleman off it. He was the same way when he got into coaching, tough on the court and a great person off it."
Berrier takes his distinction with a great sense of pride.
"This is a tremendous honor," the 58-year-old Berrier said. "There have been so many great players in the county and at St. John over the years. I've had the chance to play with and against so many great players and coach against so many fine coaches.
"I'm particularly pleased because I'm going in with Don Cannell. He has meant so much to my life."
Learning the game
Like so many players of that era, Berrier learned the game playing with relatives and other kids in the East 14th Street neighborhood of Ashtabula.
"My uncle put up a hoop in his garage and I always used to go over and play with my cousin, Fran Dramis, and a bunch of our friends," he said. "That garage had an old cobblestone floor, so it was tough to dribble, but I think that helped develop our ballhandling skills."
More organized games began in the fifth grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Among other boys who were his teammates were Vic Rossetti and Joe Incorvia.
"Sam Gentile and Art Vendetti were my coaches in fifth grade," Berrier said. "Then Joe Simko was our coach in sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
"Sam, Art and Joe all taught us the fundamentals. I believe Joe could have been the varsity coach. I think we won something like 75 or 80 straight games between fifth and eighth grade."
Answering the call
When he got to St. John as a freshman, McGinnis was his first coach.
"That was a great year," Berrier said. "We went 16-2."
It looked like Berrier was going to be a factor with the varsity team, coached by Cinciarelli, his sophomore year, until he broke his leg in football.
"I missed the whole season except for a couple quarters of our tournament game," he said. "We played against PV that I think had Bob Boggs on the team.
"It's kind of funny. I actually had three letters in football and only two in basketball. We didn't have a baseball team back then, and baseball was probably my best sport. I had a lot of people who said I should have played college baseball, but I liked basketball more."
He finally got a chance to really help Cinciarelli's varsity squad his junior year.
"I was a forward," he said. "My teammates were (future Notre Dame football star) Denny Allan, (future Perry boys basketball and cross country coach) Lou DiDonato, (present Ashtabula County sheriff) Bill Johnson, (future SS. John and Paul football coach) Dom Iarocci, Bruce Kotila and Mike Madonna.
"Mike was about 6-4 or 6-5, so I didn't have to play inside. I jumped center, but Dom was our 5-9 pivot. I think we were 9-9 my junior year. We beat Ashtabula my junior year. Anytime you beat them back then, it meant a lot, and that was probably the first team St. John ever beat (ACBF Hall of Famer Gene Gephart's) Ashtabula (team)."
But Cinciarelli left before the 1966-67 season and Cannell moved up from the JV job to become head coach. The Heralds went 12-9 that year and Cannell earned Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year honors. Berrier was first-team all-county and all-league.
Basketball was at its height that year. Geneva and Conneaut tied for the Northeastern Conference title, but St. John had a role in that, beating Andy Garcia's Conneaut squad on what is now Don Cannell Court in John Mahoney Gymnasium when Berrier hit a putback at the buzzer.
"I just followed up on a shot (Iarocci) made," Berrier said. "I was the biggest guy on the team my senior year. I used to pick up a lot of garbage."
He liked the style Cannell brought to the Heralds.
"I was the biggest guy on the team, so we ran a lot if we could get the rebound," Berrier said. "Don gave us free rein to run. He simplified the game to the point where we knew what was a good shot and what wasn't.
"If we'd had a 3-point line back then, we'd have had a lot of them because most of our shots would have been outside that line. I could shoot, and so could (Johnson, his cousin). I remember Billy and I used to have some terrific games of horse at our family reunions."
Cannell appreciated Berrier's gifts.
"Denny was our top guy his senior year," he said. "He was a good outside shooter and a great leader. He and (Johnson) could sure shoot the ball and they made quite a combination with Lou, (Allan) and Dom."
St. John's season in Berrier's senior year was ended by a pretty special team, too.
"We lost to Kirtland in the sectional final," he said. "(Future Cleveland Cavaliers coach) Don Delaney was their coach. Jeff Mills, their star player, was Class A Ohio Player of the Year that year."
To St. Vincent
Despite his basketball success, it appeared Berrier was headed for a college baseball career.
"I was looking at Miami of Ohio for baseball, but our principal, Father (Fredrick) Slaven, asked me if I was thinking about going to a Catholic college," he said. "I'd seen St. Vincent before when I went to visit my friend Joe Rose there, but I hadn't thought about it much.
"Gene Pushic and Paul Kopko took a bunch of us to visit California (Pa., Pushic's collegiate alma mater) and while we were in the area, they asked if we'd like to look at St. Vincent. When I went back there, I just fell in love with it. We made up a scrapbook, I went to a tryout there and they offered me a scholarship."
So Berrier ended up at the school in Latrobe, Pa., home of legendary golfer Arnold Palmer.
"We used to see (Palmer's) plane fly over and land," Berrier said.
Basketball worked out quite well for Berrier.
"I lettered for three years," he said. "St. Vincent was an NAIA school, but we played a lot of great schools. I was honorable mention all-district as a senior.
"We played Duquesne when Steve McHugh was there. They beat us by 67. We played bigger schools like St. Francis, that had (future NBA players) Norm Van Lier and Kevin Porter, Westminster, that was several times national champion back then and Indiana, Pa. The competitive level was pretty steep. I probably played against eight or nine future NBA players."
Something even better than basketball happened to Berrier while he was at St. Vincent. That's where he met his wife of 35 years, Monica. She is completing her 29th year as a Spanish teacher at Westerville North High School.
"She went to our sister school at Seton Hill," Berrier said. "Neither school was co-ed back then. I count my blessings every day that I met Monica."
The Berriers are parents of daughters Kristan and Meghann, both born in Ashtabula, but now living in suburban Westerville like their parents. Both have followed their parents into education, Kristan as a second-grade teacher and Meghann as a sixth-grade teacher in the Westerville school system.
Kristan was a star distance runner at Westerville South and Butler University, earning All-American honors there. She is married to Wayne Robertson, a standout quarterback at Westerville South, and has two children — son Cameron, 5, and daughter Sydney, 2.
Meghann also graduated from Westerville South, where she met her future husband, Eric Ongaro, a standout football center there. They are the parents of Ava, 2.
On to coaching
When he returned to Ashtabula, Berrier started teaching, not at St. John, but at Station Avenue rival Ashtabula in 1971-72.
"I was an assistant coach for (Ashtabula County Football Hall of Famer) Wash Lyons in football," he said. "I was assistant basketball coach for (ACBF Hall of Famer) Bob Walters in basketball and assistant for Don Horwood in baseball."
It looked like Berrier was off to another destination for 1972-73 when Cannell interceded.
"I was going to Conneaut to coach football with (ACF Hall of Famer) Tony Chiacchiero," he said. "But Don called me and offered me the head basketball job at St. John and I took it.
"It was quite something to get that job at 23 years old, but I had some good talent. I had Steve Abraham, who was 6-5, 250 and went to Michigan State to play football. I also had Tom McGinnis and Bill Brosky. Bill was 6-4 and a great shooter."
His coaching philosophy was taken from Cannell and a couple of his St. Vincent coach.
"Oland ‘Dodo' Canterna was my head coach at St. Vincent," Berrier said. "He'd been an All-American at Pitt. His assistant was Harry Miller, who played in one of the first NBA games.
"We tried to stress defense, especially going against the larger schools we faced in the NEC. Offensively, we tried to go inside out with Steve and Bill. We went around .500 my first year."
Several highlights followed in the succeeding years.
"We won the sectional championship with Steve and Bill my second year," Berrier said. "We also beat Ashtabula my second year for the first time since when I'd played. Our 1977-78 team won the sectional. The 1975-76 team beat PV in overtime when we came back to tie the game after being down by eight with 35 seconds left."
But the degree of difficulty in the NEC kept going up.
"We added Madison and Riverside during that time," Berrier said. "It had been tough going up every night as a player against guys like Bailey, Garcia and Gephart, but it got even tougher as a coaching battling guys like (ACBF Hall of Famers) Jon Hall at Edgewood, Ed Armstrong at Harbor), Bob Walters at Ashtabula and Jim Dolan at Madison and also John Higgins when he was at Harbor."
A maturing family also moved him into the insurance business.
"It had got to the point where I was spending more time with other people's kids, and my girls were 5 and 2," Berrier said. "Jim Gillespie gave me a call to sell me a policy with New York Life and brought his boss along, who talked about getting into the business. I was willing to listen."
After resigning from St. John after the 1979-80 season, Berrier stayed in the area until being called into New York Life's offices in Columbus in 1984. He's still with New York Life, although double-bypass surgery after a heart attack suffered on Father's Day, 2007 convinced him to scale back to his own operation out of his home.
"(His heart trouble) was a wakeup call," he said. "I still start about 8:30 every day, but I'm usually done by 3."
He is looking forward to Sunday and a reunion with old rivals and friends. It will take on extra significance since his nephew, Keith, will be honored as a member of the Star Beacon Ashtabula County first-team from SS. John and Paul.
Most of his family is still in Ashtabula County, including Keith's father and Denny's brother, Chris, who came back to Ashtabula three years ago. Yolanda and Harry Rhoads, their mother and stepfather, still live in Ashtabula, while sister Theresa, who is married to Marc Pope, lives in Saybrook Township. Brother Lyle Jr. resides in Conneaut. Their father, Lyle Berrier, is in Utah.
Basketball is a foundational factor for Denny Berrier.
"It helped me meet so many of the people I know in Ashtabula and from St. Vincent," he said. "I've learned to deal with a lot of life's ups and downs, like my college roommate dying of cancer when he was only 39, because of basketball.
"It helped me with the contacts I've made in my second career. It gave me direction and self-confidence. I owe a lot to basketball."