Cynthia Berry remembers growing up as a “farm girl” in the Black River school district with a love of basketball. When her junior high didn’t have a girls team, she simply went out for the boys team — and made it.
After she graduated from Black River High School in 1985, and while attending what was then known as Ashland College, she was asked to come back to her alma mater to help coach the junior high boys. That started a long career of coaching not just basketball, but also track and cross country, within the Black River school system.
“When I was interviewing (for the boys varsity job), I think we figured out that I had coached 48 combined seasons here at Black River between the three sports,” Berry said.
Whatever team she coached, whether it was junior high or freshman boys hoops or varsity girls track, not only performed well, but her players raved about her.
So when the Black River varsity boys job opened following a dismal 1-20 season (and zero wins in the Patriot Athletic Conference), many of the current seniors who played for Berry as freshmen urged her to go for it, then went to school board meetings and made it clear whom they wanted.
“I know people look at it and it’s not a path many women have traveled in Ohio,” Berry said. “It’s just been a natural fit for me. I grew up in this community and got into basketball with the boys because we didn’t have junior high girls hoops. Whenever I could get away from the farm, I played basketball with the boys. I just loved playing and still love the sport.
“Mike Vukovich asked me to be his junior high boys coach a few years after I graduated, and people just have had a lot of confidence in me since then. I moved up to be the freshman coach and then a varsity assistant. So I really didn’t see it as a big deal when I got this job, and I know that it is.”
Berry is one of three women serving as varsity boys basketball coaches at OHSAA schools, joining Akron North’s Stacie Horton-Carter and Arcadia’s Cara Noel. Christian Community School, a non-OHSAA program, also hired a woman this season in Brenda Fox.
Berry is the first in this area, and knows some people see her as a trailblazer.
“At our first scrimmage, the refs actually came over to specifically shake my hand and say they couldn’t wait to meet me and wish me luck,” Berry said. “I’ve had opposing coaches refuse to shake my hand and instead shake my assistant’s hand. Sometimes you do feel treated differently. But the boys don’t think anything of it. The parents don’t think anything of it.
“I’m glad for that to a point, but I don’t worry about what others would say. I love this game and I love this community. I’m here for a reason. The parents of the kids that support you are right alongside of you. You meet great parents from great kids and great assistant coaches. You’re here to do a job, and when they have confidence, it makes it so much easier to do that job.”
Senior point guard Zach Sword wasn’t shy about saying how much he tried to get Berry to come back and take the job. She had been out of the boys program for two seasons while Don Brunker was the coach.
“I was the first one to talk to her about it, actually,” Sword said. “I told her after everything that was going on with Brunker, she needed to go out and take the job over for next year. I probably talked to her during the season, begging her to come back as next year’s coach. When she told me she put in for it, I was thrilled.
“I knew she would get it as soon as she put in for it because everyone in our township respects her. We only lost three games with her as our freshman coach, and she’s a coach that we all respect and love to play for.”
Senior center Caleb Stiver was one of the players who attended the board meetings.
“I was real happy when she got the job,” Stiver said. “So far, it’s been everything that we thought it would be. Everybody seems pretty positive about everything. She’s always positive about everything.
“She’s very easy to talk to if you don’t know how to do something. However, if you’re not paying attention and you keep messing up, she’ll get mad and get on you about it. But if you pay attention to details and try your hardest, it will get recognized.”
Berry said former Keystone coach Greg Morgan called to congratulate and she received a text from second-year Wellington coach Dan Gundert with words of support.
“I’m not out here to say it’s about time,” Berry said. “It’s just that opportunities and doors were opened to me. Finally, you get to a point in your life where you have to quit being worried about other people’s perceptions and do it.
“I have nothing to prove. It’s just a natural fit. If there was an opening somewhere else, I would have never put in for it before. But maybe it’s easier on the home front.”
Sword said knowing Berry’s system what she expects is something the seniors have conveyed to the underclassmen.
“When we started off, all four of the seniors that were here, we knew what to do,” Sword said. “We want the underclassmen to give us a hard time in practice, because that means the program will improve and the season will improve.”
Berry’s focus is rebuilding a program that has had only three winning seasons since 1969 and is coming off the worst season in school history.
“One of the biggest goals I have is to get basketball back to being a big point of enthusiasm for this district,” Berry said. “In the past, there has been a lot of inconsistency with the kids. I want fundamentals taught at an early age with biddy ball and have them playing hard through. It’s kind of hard with the levy situation and the talk of pulling kids out.
“My dream is having seven or eight seniors and seven or eight juniors and a full freshman team where you don’t have to pull anyone up. When the year’s over, you want them to be so excited to play it again. We want to be competitive at all levels. I want them to be great at all levels here at Black River, and that’s what I’m striving for.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.