WARREN, Pa. – Being a leader isn’t easy. Being a leader as a student-athlete in the age of COVID-19 presents challenges that most have never had to deal with.
Warren Area High School boys basketball seniors Payton Barnes and Ben Berdine are taking it all in stride, however. As part of a group of four seniors that also includes Alex Borger and Ian Darling, they have been thrust into a position they couldn’t have envisioned a year ago.
Yet here are Barnes and Berdine, the two returning starters on a team that was one win away from a berth in the state playoffs a season ago, helping to lead a Dragon team with high expectations.
“It’s definitely been different, that’s for sure,” Barnes said. “Especially since we’ve only had a couple weeks of practice, but you just have to adapt and make the best of it.”
Adapt. That’s been critical to do during this time. Attitude is important as well.
“The first thing you have to do is stay positive because you never know what stuff might happen and just blow away everything,” Berdine said. “You need to encourage guys to keep their heads up and keep playing because these are tough times and our team is a family.”
Tough times got even tougher when Gov. Tom Wolf announced Dec. 10 that high school sports would be “paused” for three weeks. It’s not easy, being away from teammates, but they are doing everything in their power to stay sharp while they are away.
For Barnes, who has plans to play in college, he has a routine that he has been able to stick to.
“Honestly nothing has changed much for me as far as trying to stay sharp,” Barnes said. “Since I will be playing in college, I have to stay sharp and in shape so I’ve continued my offseason workouts as usual. The hard part was finding a gym and thanks to Mr. (Tim) Nyquist and coach (Jeff) Berdine, they took care of that part.”
The same goes for the younger Berdine, who has signed with Mercyhurst University to play baseball.
“Working out and running on the treadmill at home, and any chance I get to shoot hoops, I do,” Berdine said.
They also, as senior leaders have a responsibility to their younger teammates to make sure they are getting their work in as well.
“I do the best I can to hold the younger guys accountable by trying to make sure they get to the gym as much as possible when it is available,” Barnes said.
For Berdine, it all goes back to attitude.
“Just staying positive and not give up, keep working hard and have a healthy mindset,” he said of how he’s pushing his younger teammates.
Speaking of those younger teammates, plenty will be stepping into key roles this season.
It’s an exciting time, because many of them come with high expectations, something the elder statesmen on the team know well.
And they are excited.
“We’ve got a lot of talented younger guys,” Barnes said. “I feel like some will step right in and fill some key roles, like Tommy Nyquist stepping right in at point along with Parks Ordiway’s great shooting ability. We have good length as well with JT (Blum) and Bryce (Blair). I also like the energy and rebounding that Kody Vega gives us.”
Berdine notices both the talent and the energy they were bringing to practice every day before the shutdown.
“During practice I have definitely seen a lot of bright spots when we play, whether it’s drills or actual scrimmages. I think everybody on this team can be crucial in every game one way or another.”
While they are focused on bettering themselves and their teammates, they are also missing being in that environment.
It’s why, hopefully on Jan. 4 (the day they are currently allowed to return), they will be as excited as anybody.
“I’m looking forward to being back on the court with my friends, especially with the other seniors, Ben Berdine, Alex Borger and Ian Darling,” Barnes said. “Also I’m looking forward to being able to play competitively.”
The compete part is something that coach Jeff Berdine doesn’t have to worry about with this group, a sentiment echoed by his oldest son.
“Competing and having fun,” Ben Berdine said about what he’s looking forward to most post-shutdown. “Obviously this is my last year and I want to go out with a strong season and showing.”
They also have those expectations to be better than they were a season ago, a season that ended with a loss in the District 10 Class 4A third-place game, one win shy of the state playoffs.
That’s why they will be prepared when they are allowed to return.
“Teams that prepare the best during the time off will definitely have an advantage,” Barnes said. “It’s important to try and keep that team chemistry and stay focused on our goals. We had a pretty good team last year but I think we’ll be just as good if not better this year. I’m confident in my teammates and what they are capable of. We are a hardworking group with good talent from the younger guys up to the seniors.”
Berdine feels the same way.
“The teams that will be more fit and ready with have an edge coming out of the layoff,” he said. “I think we have high expectations and definitely have a solid team this year. We don’t have a lot of guys back but chemistry will come and I definitely think we work well when everybody is doing their job and contributing.”