Lyndhurst’s Berko proven to be a two-sport star

Jonathon Berko was asked the tough question right away.

In the spring, Berko is a standout baseball player for Lyndhurst High School, so much so that he was named The Observer Athlete of the Week last May.

But in the winter months, Berko is a sensational goalkeeper for the Lyndhurst/Hackensack/Paramus co-operative, earning his place as perhaps the finest net minder in all of northern New Jersey.

So what is it? Is the senior a baseball player who plays hockey? Or is Berko a hockey player who plays baseball? In any case, he’s a brilliant athlete with an incredible future.

“I still think I’m a hockey player,” Berko said. “Even though I’m probably going to be a baseball player in college, being a hockey player is so natural to me. I’ve been playing hockey for so long. But if I try to play hockey in college, I have to play three years in junior hockey. Right now, I want to go to college, so I’ll go the baseball route.”

For now, Berko is a dominating goalie, one who had an incredible week of stopping shots for the Lyndhurst/Hackensack/Paramus squad. He made 31 saves in a 3-2 win over state-ranked Northern Valley/Old Tappan, collected 39 saves in a 2-2 tie with powerhouse River Dell, whose coach Steve Jaskot died of complications from a staph infection at the age of 34, and made 42 saves in a 3-0 loss to No. 4-ranked St. Joseph of Montvale.

And for his efforts, Berko has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week last week, joining a rare list of athletes that have earned Athlete of the Week for more than one sport.

But Berko is the first in the 20-year history of the weekly honor to be named for hockey and baseball.

“He’s a hell of an athlete,” Lyndhurst/Hackensack/Paramus hockey head coach Denis Jelcic said. “He’s faced 366 shots this year and made 348 saves. He’s allowed just 18 goals. He’s just a stud there in net. He’s also a stud baseball player. It’s amazing. He knows where the shot is going before it’s taken. He’s so smart in goal.”

Jelcic said that Berko had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder after transferring back home to Lyndhurst from Don Bosco Prep.

“He had to adjust,” Jelcic said. “He wasn’t playing all the time and his attitude was poor. But that attitude changed. He is now the best player on the ice every night. All we need to do is score a few goals and we should be okay.”

Berko had to share time last season, but this year, he’s been in net for every single game.

“I love hockey and could play every day,” Berko said. “Every second of every day, I could play. I never want to come off the ice. I’m the first one on the ice and the last one to leave.”

Jelcic said that Berko reminds him of star National Hockey League goalies like Mike Richter of the New York Rangers and Grant Fuhr of the Edmonton Oilers, short net minders who moved freely from post to post to make save after save.

“That’s who he reminds me of,” Jelcic said.

Berko would rather be considered with Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings or recently retired star Martin Brodeur of the Devils.

“I think they are both athletic goalies,” Berko said. “They’re also strong with their glove hand. I try to make as many saves with my glove. It comes natural to me. It’s always been natural. That’s my No. 1 thing. It’s always my first move.”

Berko said that he’s working on his puck handling, which Brodeur totally mastered.

“I have to keep the play moving,” Berko said. “That’s the main thing.”

Berko said that he really didn’t pay attention to the opposition last week.

“I just wanted to try to win three hockey games,” Berko said. “I always take them one game at a time. I didn’t want to look too far ahead.”
But of course, the matchup with the highly regarded Green Knights meant a lot to Berko.

“You see that game on the schedule and you can’t think about anything else,” Berko said. “I was really excited. It’s a shame we lost.”

“He knows we’re not as skilled and talented as we have been before,” Jelcic said. “He has to be more of a voice. He’s a team captain who leads by example. He knows that he’s going to give us a chance to win every game. He wants to win at all cost. He’s never worried. He just tells his teammates to score a couple and we’ll win. There’s no stopping him. I always wanted a great goalie, but I have a great goalie who is a great person. That’s what we got.”
Berko is uncertain what he plans to do after he graduates from high school. He has excellent grades, with a 3.8 grade point average and a score of 1100 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Berko is getting interest in baseball from places like Monmouth, Rutgers, Brookdale Community College and Caldwell. He might want to study law one day, but he’s undecided about a college major.

For now, Berko wants to give his team a chance to win in the upcoming state tournament.

“I want the playoffs to come already,” Berko said. “I want to go further than the last game last year.”

But there’s no question. Jonathon Berko is a two-sport superstar, one with no peers on the ice or on the diamond.




Lyndhurst senior goalkeeper Jonathon Berko. Photo by Jim Hague

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”