Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Unsurprising Bounce Back of Kyle Bernlohr
By Sarah Griffin | Aug 11, 2022
This season was never going to be a “revenge tour” for Kyle Bernlohr.
Despite the narratives surrounding an uncharacteristic 2021 season for the veteran backstop, Bernlohr dealt with something last year all athletes experience at one point or another: a slump.
While all athletes deal with slumps, for a goalie especially, it can be an isolating feeling.
“I wasn’t playing my best for the first time in my career and it put me in a bad headspace,” Bernlohr recalled. “I couldn’t get to the ball like I know I’m capable of and wasn’t seeing it like I normally do. It seemed like a pinball, not a beach ball. I got in my own head, and took it really hard.”
That was then. This is now.
“He always knew he was going to come back and he was going to be the guy,” remarked Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta. “He never lost his starting role.”
Bernlohr arrived at training camp this year not with vengeance on his mind, but rather, a clear mind, and clean slate.
“Coming into this season, I’ve kind of just erased last year from my mind. I felt good going into training camp, and even after a couple days of practice, I was ready to go.”
“He’s a lacrosse junkie. He eats, sleeps, and breathes lacrosse,” said teammate Bryce Young.
In his seventh professional season, Bernlohr’s had the same weekly routine leading up to gameday for as long as he can remember.
He starts off the week with some light work Monday and Tuesday coming off the weekend’s game and travel, maybe with some yoga here and there. After that, the focus shifts to preparing for the upcoming weekend, both physically and mentally.
As a veteran, he’s familiar with a majority of the guys in the league and their tendencies as shooters. Still, he’ll study film for hours on end.
“He’s a student of the game,” said teammate and fellow goaltender Brian Phipps. “He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever met.”
Whether it’s a rookie he’s never faced before, or a fellow veteran who’s taken a hundred shots on him over the years, the mental preparation is just as important as the physical for Bernlohr.
“If shots are getting by you, it’s either shooters are shooting well, you’re getting inside your own head or both. As a goalie, you have complete control over one of those things. Mental toughness is everything.”
It certainly takes a special breed to step in the net and Bernlohr has all the makings of just that. He’s been a mainstay in the conversation of the best of the best between the pipes for years now.
“I’d say I’m a pretty unorthodox goalie,” he stated.
Physically, he’s on the smaller side for a goaltender. He may not take up as much space in the net as other goalies, but with footwork as quick as his, he doesn’t need to. Athletic, small, fast steps help Bernlohr get to the ball without having to make long, desperate strides.
“I’m pretty jumpy and sporadic in net.”
His size isn’t the only thing unorthodox about him.
“I’ll direct traffic for the defense and tell them what type of shots I’m looking to see of course, but I’m not too much of a ‘vocal’ leader actually. We have older guys on this team in our locker room who do that. I’m on the more quiet side, even as a goalie.”
Quiet as he may be, there’s not many who understand and have mastered the mental toughness of the position better than Bernlohr.
In 2021, he made the hardest decision any goalie can make. As his regular season struggles continued into the playoffs, it was Bernlohr himself who told his team not to start him for the semifinals. He wanted what was best for the Whipsnakes and their chance to succeed, and in this case, it was to give Phipps the start over him.
“There’s not many people in this position who are mature enough to do that,” said Phipps. “He really cares about this team and wanted to do whatever he could to help and succeed. We have a great relationship and trust in one another. I support him, he supports me.”
Bernlohr and Phipps first met back in 2012. Bernlohr was a redshirt freshman and Phipps was an alumni and volunteer assistant coach working with Maryland’s goalies.
Phipps recalls being impressed with Bernlohr and his dedication to the game immediately. Though he didn’t earn the starting role until his junior year, it was his work ethic in particular that stood out.
“Not many people know this, but he really had to put in the work to beat out his competition for that starting role [his junior year],” revealed Phipps. “It’s not something that was handed to him. He went above and beyond in his preparation. His work ethic isn’t something you see very often.”
Bernlohr’s enjoyed the support of a defensive unit composed of some of his longtime teammates and friends dating back to his college days, something that greatly helps his confidence.
“That core of us on defense, we’re super good at reading each other and feeling each others’ body language. It’s trust. We have a long history playing together - so many games altogether dating back however many years now.”
“Having that college experience together, even if we didn’t all play at Maryland at the same time, it definitely has a huge impact on our game. It gives us that connection where we already use the same lingo, we know how each other plays, and now we have years of experience playing with one another,” Dunn explained. “We’re on the same page on the field. Our defense, we know what kind of shots Kyle wants, so that’s what we want to try to do.”
The Whips’ defense has unquestionably done just that for their backstop this season. Bernlohr’s been the best goalie in the league this season, leading in nearly all statistical categories for goaltending. He’s held three different teams this year to less than ten goals, and as Paul Carcaterra mentioned recently, he’s been the best goaltender from the outside.
None of this is possible without a strong defense in front of him, and as much of a bounce-back year Bernlohr has been having, the Whips’ defense is having one themselves.
“People were really critical of Kyle last year and I don’t think that’s fair to him because as a defense, we weren’t playing well in front of him,” Bernhardt said. “It’s called team defense for a reason. People put him under a microscope, but we didn’t set him up for success. He wasn’t confident in net, and that’s not on him, that's on us.”
Seemingly everyone on the Whipsnakes’ backend agreed.
“We didn’t play good defense in front of him whether it was because of injuries or down years in general, we weren’t doing him any favors,” reiterated Young. “People think our defense starts with [Mike] Ehrhardt or Dunn, but it starts with Kyle. There was never a doubt in any of our minds that he was going to bounce back, but the year he’s having, it really reminds us all of the importance of consistent work and a love for the game.”
This season, the Whipsnakes lead the league in defensive efficiency at 25.6%, with opponents shooting 25.3%. They’ve allowed a league-low 10.1 scores against average.
“He makes it easy; we can always count on him to steal us a few and make a save within a save,” said Dunn. “He’s very invested in what we’re doing beyond just making stops. He’s engaged in our game plan every step of the way. He’s got a coach's mindset.”
“We’re f**king lucky to be playing in front of that guy,” Young exclaimed.
The Whipsnakes look to secure the number one seed and first-round bye this weekend with a win over the Atlas. The last time these two teams met, Bernlohr recorded a season-high 73% save percentage, holding the Bulls to just nine goals.
Then again - that was then, this is now. A clear mind and clean slate, Bernlohr’s only concern is the game at hand.