SMITHERS — A player forever synonymous with Valley High School basketball was recognized in special fashion in a gym where he once dazzled fans and befuddled foes.
During a ceremony on Alumni Night on Dec. 8, Valley High representatives retired the No. 24 jersey worn by Steve Berger, a Boomer native who led the Greyhounds to dizzying heights in the 1980s.
In three seasons ending with 1984-85, Berger took the Greyhounds on a thrilling ride during which they won 61 of 70 games and advanced to the boys state tournament for the first time in VHS school history.
After his stellar high school days, Berger embarked on a career at West Virginia University in which he established the school’s still-standing career assist record of 574 while scoring 1,262 points.
He came back home on Dec. 8 to mingle and relive memories with old classmates, coaches and friends, as well as to receive their accolades for his high school exploits.
Berger said he was grateful for the school’s recognition.
“When I heard about it .... I’m still shocked,” Berger said following the ceremony, as players who played both before him and after him took part in an alumni game. “The appreciation I have that people appreciate something I did. ...
“It means an awful lot.”
There was a lot he did that people could appreciate.
After a successful year with the school’s freshman team, Berger joined the Valley varsity roster his sophomore year and made an immediate impact. That year, 1982-83, he averaged 12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game and committed just 26 turnovers as Valley logged a 20-3 record. The campaign ended with a 73-65 setback to nemesis Dunbar in the region semifinal round.
For his efforts, Berger was chosen as a member of the first-team Class AA all-state team, the first of three consecutive years he achieved that elite status.
In his junior year, Berger and the Greyhounds upped their games. Valley posted a 17-3 regular season before vanquishing Sherman, Scott, Dunbar and Man — the latter in the region final, to advance to the Class AA state tournament with a 21-3 record. It marked Valley High’s first-ever boys state basketball tourney appearance. In the Class AA semifinals, the Greyhounds ran into a Northfork buzzsaw, falling 80-47 to close the door on a successful 21-4 season. That year, Berger scored 519 points.
Northfork went on to capture the double-A title with a 70-58 victory over Wheeling Central. It was the Blue Demons’ last of 10 state titles before the school closed for good in 1985.
While Berger remembers “being overwhelmed by Northfork,” he also called the state tournament “the greatest experience as a 16-17-year-old that I can remember.”
During his senior campaign, the Greyhounds were once again solid, logging a 20-1 record leading up to a region championship tilt with Williamson. However, the Wolfpack triumphed 70-68, preventing the ‘Hounds from returning to Charleston for another shot at the state championship.
“To this day, I truly believe it (the regional alignment) was switched around so Dunbar didn’t have to play us,” said Berger. Dunbar won the state championship that year, 78-61 over Wheeling Central Catholic.
In 1984-85, Berger’s final year wearing No. 24 for the Greyhounds, he scored 425 points for a 19.3 points per game average, according to research provided by Rich Stevens. That effort pushed his unofficial three-year total to 1,234 points. And that output was without the benefit of the 3-point line, which wasn't adopted by the National Federation of State High School Associations for high schools until the 1987-88 season. He also produced big numbers for the Greyhounds in the rebounding, assists and steals departments.
In three seasons with Berger as a starter, the Greyhounds had at least 20 wins each year and compiled a 61-9 overall record.
Zane Stephenson, Berger's head coach at Valley, called him "the most unselfish player I ever coached."
"He was like a coach on the floor; he saw the open man. My philosophy was you hit the open man."
Stephenson said, at times, that he had to push Berger to shoot more. "I had to get on him sometime to shoot the ball."
Stephenson coached Valley into the 1990 season, then retired as the school's principal in the mid-2000s.
"He was the best point guard I ever coached here," and he was also the best at WVU, Stephenson said. "I watched his games on TV and went up there (some trips to Morgantown). He controlled the game."
With Berger, Stephenson said he continued with his policy of not bringing freshmen up to play for the varsity team. Berger could have easily played for the 'Hounds, but Stephenson "wanted to keep the group together," he said.
Stephenson said he told Berger on his recent visit if he'd have gone somewhere else to school, he likely would have been a four-year starter and quite possibly a four-year all-stater.
"He wanted to keep us all together," said Berger, who currently lives in Salisbury, N.C. and works with students in an alternative setting. "That freshman year, we were like 19-0 or 19-1. We enjoyed playing with each other.
"It means a lot when you get a group of guys (who like playing together)."
Berger and VHS teammate Jeff Reynolds both played middle school ball at Falls View School before deciding to play at Smithers. During their time, teammates including Clinton Duncan, Anthony Conliffe, John Argento, Brad Davis, Thomas Coping, Jeff Zickafoose and Joe Hardy were among those making outstanding contributions to Valley’s success.
"My number's on it, but I hope everybody who played with me feels they are inside that jersey," Berger said.
"So many people contributed to this night," he continued. "This is not about me; it's about Valley High School.
"I have overwhelmingly fond memories (of the school). The community, the people, the coaches, the teachers ... everything about this school."
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