By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The Virginia Cavaliers were not the only men’s lacrosse team to win an NCAA title at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia last year.
On May 26, 2019, about 24 hours before UVA defeated Yale to secure the program’s sixth Division I crown, Merrimack College pummeled previously unbeaten Limestone 16-8 to capture a second straight Division II championship.
Charlie Bertrand led Merrimack with four goals and three assists that afternoon. A year later, he’s a Cavalier.
“It’s just crazy the way it worked out,” Bertrand said by phone from his home in Baldwinsville, New York, outside Syracuse.
A 6-3, 220-pound attackman, Bertrand would not have predicted this turn of events last year. He fully expected to finish his college career at Merrimack, which is in North Andover, Massachusetts, about 25 miles north of Boston. But the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports in March, after which the NCAA gave student-athletes in spring sports another year of eligibility.
Bertrand, who twice was named Division II’s top player, will use that year at UVA, where he’ll join an attack unit that lost Michael Kraus, a two-time All-American.
“It stinks that the season got cut short, but I just want to make the most out of this opportunity of having another year of eligibility,” Bertrand said.
Bertrand, 22, graduated from Merrimack this spring with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. At UVA, he’s been accepted into the prestigious M.S. in Commerce program in the McIntire School of Commerce.
“I don’t know exactly what I want to do [professionally],” Bertrand said, “but having a mechanical engineering undergrad is a great way to get my foot in the door. And then having this Commerce master’s is going to open up a lot of doors for me in three to five years, when I’m looking to possibly go into a management position on the business side of engineering or whatever it may be.”
Lightly recruited out of high school, Bertrand had an extraordinary career at Merrimack, totaling 210 goals and 64 assists in three-plus seasons.
He had 18 goals and five assists this season, the Warriors’ first in Division I. Merrimack played six games before the season was canceled, one of which was a 14-12 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor on Feb. 22.
Bertrand, who missed most of the preseason with a hip injury, finished with four goals and an assist against the Wolverines.
“That’s a film we spent a lot of time with, knowing how good Michigan’s coaching staff is,” UVA offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan said. “That’s Big Ten lacrosse. Charlie actually has a pretty nifty career highlight tape that somebody at Merrimack put together, but I didn’t watch it until after he committed to us. I knew it was going to be good. I’d heard enough about him to know he was a very good lacrosse player.
“I spent a lot of time just trying to dive into that [Merrimack-Michigan] film from a Division I standpoint.”
Exactly how the Wahoos will use Bertrand is yet to be determined. He scored at least one goal in every game he played for Merrimack. Twice he scored eight goals.
“The best thing I can say about Charlie is he gives us another option,” Kirwan said. “Whether it is through the midfield or attack, he’s just going to be another piece of what we’re trying to do, and brings a different skill set that we don’t necessarily have a lot of. You’re always looking for lefties. From an offensive balance standpoint, from an extra-man standpoint, it’s something you’re always looking for, and you can never have too many. Making sure we replaced the one we lost was important to us.”
Kraus finished his UVA career with 131 goals and 109 assists. Bertrand is a prolific scorer, too, but he’s no Kraus clone.
“Charlie operates more above the goal, as opposed to behind the cage,” Kirwan said. “The best way I can describe him is, he’s got a lot of the similar characteristics Kraus had when Kraus was playing above the goal.”
A three-time Division II All-American, Bertrand evolved into a complete player during his time at Merrimack, which was NCAA runner-up in 2017.
“I didn’t really physically develop until after freshman year, I’d say,” Bertrand recalled. “In high school I was kind of just a big lefty that would body defenders. I realized [in college] that it’s good to have size, but all the defensemen also have size, and they’re also quick. So I did a lot of footwork drills and got much faster the last couple years. I didn’t lose weight, but I kind of just turned old weight into stronger weight. I’ve definitely ramped up my workouts and habits, eating well and doing the little things every day.
Bertrand won’t be asked to lead the Cavaliers’ offense next season. Of the eight players who scored at least three goals apiece for UVA (4-2) this year, only Kraus has ruled out returning in 2021.
“I definitely think it takes some of the pressure off of him,” Kirwan said. “He’s a pretty competitive guy and holds himself to a high standard, but one of the things that I love about Charlie is he was very quick to compliment his teammates at Merrimack. This was not just a guy that was demanding the ball every time down. He understands how team offenses work, and he understands too how important that is after being a part of back-to-back championship teams, that synergy within an offense to reach the top and win a championship.”
Bertrand scored six goals in a 13-11 loss to Dartmouth on Feb. 15. He’s comfortable in a complementary role, but “he can take over a game and have the ball in his stick if it’s an advantageous matchup,” Kirwan said. “It’s nice that he can do both.”
After the NCAA awarded an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes in spring sports, Bertrand decided to enter the transfer portal, “having no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “I figured I’d sit back and see what teams reached out to me and what opportunities were there.”
UVA assistant coach Kip Turner contacted Bertrand and set up a call with head coach Lars Tiffany. “From there we had a couple Zoom calls,” Bertrand said, “and they broke down my film and then they broke down their film and showed me where I’d fit in. You could tell they were interested in me, and that was a big part of it. I was looking for a school that was looking for my best interests, as well as their own.”
Also appealing to him was the University’s M.S. in Commerce program, whose schedule was modified for the 2020-21 academic year because of the pandemic. In years past, students in the program traveled overseas in May, and that conflicted with the NCAA lacrosse tournament.
“This is the first year that lacrosse players are able to do it, so it worked out perfect,” Bertrand said.
When he was in high school, Bertrand vacationed in Virginia Beach. That’s the only time he’s been to this state.
“He had to make a decision using only these virtual tours,” Kirwan said, “but, thankfully, with technology these days you get a pretty good representation of what places look like. But I know he’s really eager to get down here finally and actually see in person the place where he’s going to spend his last year [of college].”
Bertrand and his parents are planning to visit Charlottesville next month. He’s eager to see Grounds in person for the first time, as well as start moving into the house he’ll be sharing with lacrosse teammates.
He’s excited about the prospect of testing himself at the highest level of college lacrosse and playing in front of large, boisterous crowds at Klöckner Stadium. Growing up in Central New York, Bertrand was well aware of UVA’s storied rivalry with Syracuse and saw several of the schools’ epic match-ups.
“I wouldn’t say it necessarily drove me into making a decision one way or another, but it’s going to be awesome to be playing on the big stage in the ACC,” Bertrand said. “I know they have some televised games, and obviously Virginia’s a huge lacrosse community. It’s going to be awesome.”
Even before Merrimack left Division II, Bertrand had experience playing against Division I defenders. He faced players from Syracuse, Cornell, and Albany, among other schools, in a summer league in Syracuse, and he competed in high-level tournaments in Vail, Colorado, and Lake Placid, New York.
“I’ve seen myself match up against some of these guys,” Bertrand said, “and I’m optimistic that I can come in and try to make an impact at Virginia.”