JENNIFER FIERRO and DANIEL CLIFTON • STAFF
MARBLE FALLS — The district coaches gave a clear snub to the 2000-01 Marble Falls Mustangs basketball team. They picked the squad to finish fifth in district with no hopes of making the playoffs.
Somebody, however, forgot to tell then-senior John Berkman and his teammates. Much to the surprise of the rest of the district, the Mustangs, coached by John Berkman’s father, Larry Berkman, didn’t just squeak into the playoffs; they marched in as the district champions with only one loss to their rivals to the north: Belton.
Now, as the head coach of the Lady Mustangs, John Berkman’s squad brings some of the same swagger, tinted with a bit of humility, to the basketball court this year. Berkman took over a struggling team (it entered the season on a 29-game district losing streak) picked to finish seventh in District 26-5A.
But the Lady Mustangs have erupted for a 8-1 district record with a very good possibility of making the playoffs.
Maybe it’s some of that “you can think what you want, but we’re going to do this” attitude that Berkman and the 2000-01 Mustangs showed on their way to a playoff run that’s bled over into this year’s girls squad. This year’s Lady Mustangs wrapped up the first round of district play 6-1 and are tied with Kerrville Tivy going into the second round.
To be tied for first is a proud moment for the new head coach of the program, a 2001 graduate of Marble Falls High School.
Berkman’s current playbook takes some cues from the one his dad used.
“He has his own twists to it,” Larry Berkman said. “He has his own pieces to fit his personality and his players.”
Part of the personality includes a calm demeanor that John Berkman exhibited as a player when the Mustangs faced opponents who didn’t give them much, if any, credit. The Mustangs shrugged off the doubters. They just went out and played.
And played hard.
When opposing coaches would rotate two, even three, players a game just to guard the younger Berkman, he elevated his game. The effect was evident as the rest of his teammates elevated their game as well.
“John was the leader in every way the point guard needed to be,” his father said.
As a player, John Berkman was responsible for getting his teammates set up to score or defend. By the time he graduated, he had 336 assists to set the program record.
As a coach, Berkman has found a way to get the best out of his players as they shrugged off low expectations from those outside the team before the season started.
As for comparisons with his playing days, John Berkman pointed out one big difference.
“We have better athletes now than when I was playing,” he said. “We still view ourselves as the underdogs. Our kids have to understand it doesn’t matter where other people view you. You can beat anybody on any given day if you put your mind to it.”
John’s greatest asset as a coach, his father said, isn’t his knowledge of the sport, his skills in getting community sports leagues going, or his ability to talk to people.
“He loves those girls,” the elder Berkman said. “He knows they’re going to be ladies longer than they’ll be players.”
Larry Berkman said his son was “coachable,” meaning he didn’t second-guess or try to lead the team in a way that conflicted with what his coach wanted. What separated the player, though, was his fire and will to win while doing exactly what he was told.
He seems to be passing that fire down to the Lady Mustangs as they rebuild a program that once was synonymous with winning.
During the 1990s up to the early 2000s, the Lady Mustangs struggled as a basketball program. When coach Eric Boettcher took over the program in the early 2000s, he began building it back up. Under his direction, the Lady Mustangs eventually reached the state tournament during the 2006-07 season with a 32-8 overall record. During the mid-2000s, the Lady Mustangs had been a consistent top 15 team. But after he left in 2007, the program took a tumble. Since 2011, coaches have come and gone, and it’s been six years since the team made the playoffs.
Berkman, however, brings with him a foundation as Marble Falls isn’t just where he grew up but also where he and his wife, Lauren, have chosen to live and raise their family. It’s home.
As a coach, he also brings a sense of family and commitment to his team.
Larry Berkman noted his son has a way of connecting with his players.
“John has a lot more compassion,” he said. “He communicates in a better way.”
The younger Berkman acknowledged that’s a huge part of the girls athletics program, noting it falls in line with the philosophy of Marble Falls Independent School District.
“At the end of the day, they know we’re going to love them,” he said. “We’re going to tell them we love them because of who they are as young ladies. We are intentional about them knowing we love them.”
And while loving his players might sound strange, the results can’t be argued.
The Lady Mustangs ended their district losing streak Dec. 13, 2016, when they crushed San Antonio Alamo Heights 57-35.
For many of the upperclassmen, who saw the losing streak start, the feeling of excitement when it ended was gratifying.
The tenacity and what seemed like endless energy Berkman showed as a player himself now shines through the Lady Mustangs.
“They have learned to push back,” he said. “When you’re tough, you don’t give into fatigue easily.”
Berkman told his players, who he began coaching during a spring league months before he was named the head coach, that they had the talent and the ability to be successful. He said the Lady Mustangs aren’t 18-7 overall by accident.
“So much of it comes with confidence in yourself,” he said. “You don’t play not to lose, you play to win. If we play to win every night, the winning will take care of itself. Your confidence has a lot to do with your mental state.”
In many ways, he coaches the same way he played: to win.
Marble Falls travels to Tivy (27-3), 3250 Loop 534 in Kerrville, of Friday, Jan. 27. Tipoff is 6:30 p.m.