Medina resident Kyle Berger considers his decision to attend St. Ignatius High School to be the best choice he’s made in his life.
A close second is having a late change of heart — it was prompted by a meeting with legendary coach Chuck Kyle — and deciding to play football as a sophomore.
Because of those two decisions — and due to natural talent and a lot of hard work — the 16-year-old junior will start at outside linebacker when 11-time state champion St. Ignatius plays Mentor in the Division I, Region 1 championship Saturday at 7 p.m. at Parma’s Byers Field.
“I absolutely love it here,” said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Berger, who attended Medina’s Heritage Elementary and A.I. Root Middle School. “The kids I’ve met and the opportunities I’ve had, it’s probably the best decision I’ve made.”
Berger, whose older brother Colin graduated from Medina in 2012, began considering going to Ignatius as a seventh-grader, when a few AAU basketball teammates started bringing him to functions at the school.
His father, Jim, knew Wildcats varsity basketball coach Sean O’Toole from their days together at John Carroll University, and Berger eventually chose O’Toole to be his mentor on Root’s career shadow day.
That sealed the decision for Berger, who has enjoyed Ignatius so much his younger brothers, freshmen twins Jimmy and Ryan, opted to attend the school as well.
Berger, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average and is considering majoring in pre-med in college, was a standout junior varsity football player and saw last-second action last season when the Wildcats won the state championship, but he almost didn’t go out for the team at all.
Thinking he might be better off concentrating on basketball — the swingman ended up playing JV and dressing for the varsity as a sophomore — Berger was considering giving up football prior to last season.
That’s when Kyle, who has led Ignatius to 17 regional championship appearances while compiling a 301-68-1 record, and offensive coordinator Nick Restifo demanded a face-to-face explanation.
“I wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” Berger said. “I didn’t go out for the team the first week of two-a-days, but they sat me down and talked me into playing.”
Berger ended up lettering as a sophomore and has used his size, strength — he benches 285 pounds — and 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash to compile nine sacks and 41 tackles for loss this season.
Those eye-popping stats and the fact he has the build to eventually play at 240 pounds are why Berger is already hearing from schools like Ohio State, Stanford, Illinois and Cincinnati.
“He’s a Division I (college) player, without a doubt,” Wildcats linebackers coach Ryan Franzinger said. “He’s a very explosive player and he’s very athletic. He has great speed off the edge and he’s great at putting pressure on the quarterback.”
Originally a safety, Berger switched to linebacker last year and now reminds Franzinger of Jake Ryan, who wore the same No. 39 at Ignatius and is now playing at Michigan.
“He wants to be good. That’s important to him,” Lanzinger said of Berger. “He wants to play well, but he doesn’t beat himself up over it. He’s open to coaching.”
Berger started all season for Ignatius, which beat Mentor 48-21 in Week 3, but suffered back spasms in a 20-13 Week 10 loss to rival St. Edward and didn’t play in a 35-26 first-round playoff victory over Austintown Fitch.
Berger came off the bench Saturday and had 1½ sacks in a 56-0 rout of North Royalton. He is expected to play an even bigger role against Mentor, which prevented Ignatius from getting a rematch with St. Ed’s by downing the Eagles 63-56.
“I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to play Ed’s, but Mentor and Ed’s are both great teams,” Berger said. “It was going to be a good game either way.”
Led by quarterback Mitch Trubisky, a North Carolina recruit, Mentor downed Ignatius 34-23 in the regular season last year, but lost to the Wildcats 23-17 in the regional championship.
“He’s an unbelievable quarterback,” Berger said of Trubisky, who led the Cardinals to a 45-35 win over Warren Harding in the first round of the playoffs. “With a normal quarterback, we usually get to him, but he knows exactly where to go and when to roll out. He’s fast and he’s strong.”
Ignatius and Mentor will both bring 11-1 records into their meeting Saturday, which will be televised live by Sports Time Ohio. Ignatius leads the all-time series 10-4.
“At the beginning of the season, our goal is always to win a state championship,” Berger said. “But once the season starts, we start taking it 48 minutes at a time.
“Right now, we’ve got to play 48 minutes to earn the right to play in the next game. All we’re concerned about are those 48 minutes.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.