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Nathan Berger used to have his pre-game routine set in stone.
The Glenbrook North junior goalie would make sure to get in a good stretch about 90 minutes before puck drop, and then find somewhere to relax. This season, however, the whole thing has changed.
Spartans goalie coach Tom Reibel had a different suggestion for Berger and GBN’s other two junior netminders – Matt Memolo and Robert Arner – and the results appear to be paying off. Reibel gave GBN’s goalies a set of small, incredibly springy “super balls” and they throw them against a wall while trying to catch them on the return.
“I’d never used them before,” said Berger, who has a remarkable .960 save percentage and miniscule 0.70 goals-against average in 10 Illinois High School Hockey League Scholastic Division games. “It was completely brand new to me. I’d thrown around tennis balls before, but these were way better.”
They’re not easy to catch, either.
“It was definitely difficult at first, but now that I’ve been doing it so often, I’ve become pretty good at it,” said Berger, who used the drill often while missing a month of the season with a nagging high-ankle sprain. “I was a bit skeptical at first, but it’s actually helped me prepare for the game in a better way.”
According to Reibel, it’s helping all three GBN goalies – who’ve all been needed because of injuries and all played solidly. Starting out, however, all three netminders were in a rut and let in too many bad goals. That’s when the super balls came out.
“The ones we use are black, like the puck, and they’re small,” Reibel said. “I give them to every goalie I coach and just tell them to play with them against the wall. They have to use both hands, too.”
Berger, who wears No. 20 to honor family friend and former Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak, has especially taken to it. His hand-eye coordination has improved markedly, but Reibel is also working with him on another facet of goaltending.
“Nate’s very driven, but sometimes it’s to the point where he can lose focus if something gets under his skin,” Reibel said. “Goalies have to be intensely focused, but at the same time … anger is just about the worst thing you can allow to rise up inside you.”
They’re working on letting go of goals as quickly as possible now by focusing instead on the next play, next period or next game. He’s making strides in that area, too, but still has some lapses in practices.
“When he gets scored on in practice, you’d think it’s the end of the world,” Glenbrook North head coach Evan Poulakidas said. “The other players get a kick out of it because he gets so riled up. When his team loses a competition battle in practice, it’s pretty hysterical.”
What’s no laughing matter is Berger’s contribution to a season that has the Spartans sitting second to only New Trier Green in the Sun-Times Top 10 rankings and Scholastic League standings.
“His goaltending lately has really propelled us to a different level and everyone on the team feels that way,” Poulakidas said. “He keeps himself in great shape. He’s in the best shape of any player on the team and really dedicates himself to the game. So, I’m not really that surprised that he came back from his injury so (effectively) – despite still feeling the effects.”
Reibel isn’t all that surprised, either.
Berger first rolled his ankle while playing New Trier Green prior to the Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament. As soon as he could walk on it, Berger was trying it out on the ice – and then feeling frustrated each time the pain wouldn’t let him slide into his butterfly style.
“Every time he couldn’t go in practice, he’d be mad,” Reibel said. “It was the same as when somebody scored a goal on him. I’d say, ‘Just accept it and move on.’ I was the same way, so I can relate. But he’s a very good student of the game. He listens and then tries to use what he’s learned. He’s doing everything he needs to do and he’s just been very sound for us.”