SULLIVAN TWP. — For the better part of the last 40-plus years, the Black River boys basketball program has had few historical moments.
That changed late Thursday night when a selection committee made the decision to hire Cynthia Berry as the 15th coach in school history.
The 1985 Black River graduate becomes the first female coach of an area boys basketball team. It is unknown if she is the first in Ohio history.
The National Federation of State High School Associations does not officially keep track of the number of women coaching boys basketball teams, but a 2008 informal survey found such a scenario in eight states.
Berry replaces Don Brunker, whose contract was not renewed after compiling a 9-33 record over two seasons.
“It’s very exciting for me because Black River — and most specifically Black River basketball — has had a special place for me,” Berry said. “I’ve sat back and watched and I have a special rapport with student-athletes. Sometimes you think of the ‘what ifs?’ and then you get a little wise and say, ‘Go for it.’ It’s a thrill to lead these young men who are great kids and have the upmost respect for me.”
Berry is no stranger to coaching boys, having coached the Pirates cross country team from 1991-2002. She also guided the girls track team from 1989-1997.
In basketball, she has coached the seventh grade, eighth grade and freshmen boys teams at Black River. She later moved on to be a varsity assistant under Ron Hoyt in 2006-07 and Bryan Morgan from 2007-09.
A physical education teacher at the high school and media specialist for the district, Berry made it clear she’s not out to be a trailblazer.
“It’s neat, but I have to say up front it’s not my motive,” she said. “Some people think, ‘What’s a woman doing in a man’s sport?’ but I played junior high boys basketball because we didn’t have a girls team at Black River. When I was asked to coach between the two (genders), I liked boys better.”
The 45-year-old is one of the most decorated athletes in Pirates his\tory. As Cynthia Lilly, her maiden name, she became the school’s first 1,000-point scorer in basketball — Deb Mantz and Morgan Hawley have since joined the exclusive club — and led Black River to a district title game in 1985.
She also was a multiple regional qualifier in discus and the 800-meter run along with helping the 1,600-meter relay break the school record.
Berry inherits a program that is nursing an active 20-game losing streak. The Pirates have just three winning seasons and a 258-632 record (.290) since 1969, and have not won a league title since taking the Inland Conference in 1964-65.
Guards Andrew Vaughn and Gus Kazek and post Tyler Potter are slated to return as starters from last season’s one-win team, while forwards Zach Sword and Stephen Zumack join them as key contributors.
Berry readily acknowledged depth is virtually non-existent — the junior varsity team went 1-19 and suffered a 78-5 loss to Lutheran West — and the middle school teams each finished with losing records.
Berry plans to change that by implementing physical man-to-man defense that she hopes will feed a transition offense. More importantly, she stressed beyond-the-norm efforts will be needed to build a successful and proud youth program.
“Kids need to be praised and kicked in the butt, too,” she said. “You have to find what makes each one tick. There’s a myth that guys need to be hammered more. There’s a difference between guys and girls, but you can’t belittle guys, either.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043