With the NCAA announcing March 12 that all spring sports championships were canceled and telework encouraged by University of Maryland Human Resources due to COVID-19, Terps men’s lacrosse assistant coach Jesse Bernhardt traveled back to his hometown, Orlando, Sunday.
Typically during this part of the year, Bernhardt would not be here — rather, he would be coordinating with head coach John Tillman and fellow assistant coach J.L. Reppert or installing a defense to limit the Terps’ next talented opponent.
When Monday night came around, Bernhardt — like many people in the world at the moment — was relaxing and social distancing himself. He was regularly refreshing Twitter to stay updated on the 2020 Premier Lacrosse Entry Draft — a remote event with lacrosse club coaches announcing the newest members of their team via Twitter — to learn what PLL jersey he would be sporting.
But the 2012 ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Year only had to check his phone a handful of times to discover he had been drafted. The Chrome Lacrosse Club selected him second overall.
“I’m not an old guy, but you know, I’ve been doing this for a handful of years,” Bernhardt told Testudo Times. “So I think just kind of getting a little bit of a fresh start — it’s kind of almost like being a rookie all over again, which is exciting just to have a new opportunity.”
About 1,200 miles North just outside Rochester, New York, Chrome head coach Tim Soudan was sitting at his dining room table with one of his best friends and assistant coach Jacques Monte, while his other assistant coach Nick Fiorentino was listening and engaging by speakerphone.
After the Waterdogs chose midfielder and Princeton product Zach Currier with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Soudan and his staff were on the clock. With a plethora of options, Soudan wanted to receive some feedback from Monte, the team’s defensive coordinator, and asked him who he preferred to choose with the pick.
“He was like, ‘Jesse Bernhardt. 100 percent,’” Soudan told Testudo Times.
With the 2nd pick of the 2020 Entry Draft, @PLLChrome selects Jesse Bernhardt! @JessBernhardt36.— Tim Soudan (@TimSoudanPLL) March 16, 2020
Let the #Chromeback2020 begin ⚔️ #PLLEntryDraft
The entry draft — different from the PLL college draft that will take place on April 21, 2020 — is for veteran professional lacrosse players that have been out of college for at least a year and want to enter the PLL for its second season.
Just over an hour after he drafted Bernhardt, Soudan shared a brief call with one of the newest members of his team to welcome him to the PLL . He recalled the Terp greeting him with excitement and an abundance of “Yes sir” and “No sir” replies.
“We’re thrilled to have an opportunity to work with him as far as the coaching staff goes,” Soudan said. “And I think he’s going to prove to be one of the best in the PLL this year.”
Bernhardt’s decision to join the PLL after its inaugural season wasn’t made instantaneously. Rather, it materialized after many in-depth discussions with former teammates John Haus and Michael Ehrhardt, as well as his brother, Jake Bernhardt — all of whom helped establish the league and are members of defending champion Whipsnakes.
“We’re brothers, so we had plenty of conversations,” Jesse said. “With [the PLL] being so new — it was like ‘Hey, how’s it going? What’s different? What’s different than the MLL? How are you liking it?’”
While some of those conversations were transpiring in the summer of 2019, Jesse watched the PLL establish itself from afar as he honored his commitment to the Chesapeake Bayhawks in the final year of his contract. As the PLL built its brand and gained a following, he helped lead the Bayhawks to their first MLL championship since 2013, serving as one of the team’s leading defenders with 37 ground balls and 22 caused turnovers.
One week ago today, @TheBayhawks won their 6️⃣th pic.twitter.com/LLEJh7vCdB— Major League Lacrosse (@MLL_Lacrosse) October 14, 2019
Just over three months later, the Bayhawks went through two major changes. Dave Cottle — who had coached the Bayhawks from 2012-15 and 2018-19 after previously leading Maryland men’s lacrosse from 2002-10 — and owner Brendan Kelly were leaving the organization. The duo had been together since 2010, and they were the ones who gave Bernhardt his professional opportunity by drafting the 2013 USILA First Team All-American with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 MLL Draft.
When the announcement of their departure finally reached him, Jesse comprehended the situation as a solidifying moment to leave the Bayhawks and transition to the PLL. The toughest part of shifting leagues wasn’t the unknown circumstances in front of him, it was leaving behind a faction of individuals who had made a lasting impact.
“Where all I put my eggs [was] in the people basket. I think once I knew Coach Cottle was out, and [Kelly] was out — and those guys were people that I was very loyal to, or at least tried to be — to a degree, I did have to make the decision that was best for me,” Jesse said. “It’s not difficult to leave the MLL — I think it’s more difficult in the sense of the relationship piece with teammates — like guys like Brian Phipps, and Isaiah Davis-Allen, guys like that.”
Ehrhardt, who considers Jesse one of his best friends, said he’s texted his former teammate nearly every day since the fall, relaying any and all information he could involving Jesse’s destination in the entry draft — though he later admitted he wasn’t able to give him much insight. Ehrhardt wanted Jesse to join the Terp-heavy Whipsnakes, but understood it was unlikely he would fall in Monday’s draft.
“We would have loved to have been able to get him on the Whipsnakes,” Ehrhardt told Testudo Times. “And I kept telling him, ‘Look, you’re one of the top players in the world. Even though we have the fifth pick, you’re definitely not going to fall to us.’
“Obviously [I] was holding out hope. But he went number two, so it was just kind of a credit to who he is as a player — he could have easily went one.”
With the likelihood of Jesse joining the defending champs slim, Ehrhardt anticipated Chrome would pull the trigger and end up drafting the fellow Terp. Days leading into the draft, Ehrhardt’s prediction became concrete and he regularly guaranteed Jesse that he was headed to Chrome.
So when he noticed Jesse’s name linked to Chrome on his Twitter feed, Ehrhardt texted his friend four simple words: “I told you so.”
Bernhardt now joins a Chrome team that finished the season 2-8 under former head coach Dom Starsia, who elected to step down Oct. 14, 2019 and join the PLL Lacrosse Advisory Board. Just over two months later, the PLL announced that Soudan would be replacing him after serving as the head coach of MLL’s Rochester Rattlers from 2011-17.
The team had an efficient offense with attackmen Justin Guterding and Jordan Wolf leading the way. Guterding finished the season third in the league in total points (35) and fourth in the league in assists (14), and Wolf completed the season with the third-most assists (16) in the PLL. Despite scoring a league-high 120 goals, Chrome ended the season with a league-worst minus-10 score differential.
Upon completion of the season, a new team — the Waterdogs — was created by the league and an expansion draft was created to fill its roster. Coaches were allowed to protect 11 players from the new club.
Eight days after Chrome defender Chris Sabia was one of the 18 players selected by Waterdogs, Soudan lost another piece of his defense. Defender Joe Fletcher — one of the Chrome’s leading defenders that finished third on the team in caused turnovers — announced his retirement.
In his first draft since taking the helm of Chrome, Soudan addressed his defense by drafting the Terp with his first-round pick and defender Donny Moss — an Adelphi product with six years of professional lacrosse experience — with his second.
With the Waterdogs taking Currier, Chrome had the opportunity to add attackman and 2018 MLL MVP Rob Pannell, who headlined the entry draft, to its offense. However, Soudan saw another opportunity for his team and addressed a necessity for it with his selection.
“I’m a little more simple than most. I just wanted to make sure I secure exactly what we need, and [Jesse]— in our opinion — is exactly what we need,” Soudan said. “It just was too much of a risk to lose out on a key part of our team that we need to dress week in and week out.”
Though Jesse was listed as a long-stick midfielder — a position he played while he was at Maryland — in the draft, Soudan says he plans on playing the Terp as a defender, which Jesse says he’s played more of as his professional career has continued.
As a defenseman, the Bayhawks’ franchise leader in career caused turnovers wasn’t joining an unfamiliar defense. Jesse will be added to a defense consisting of midfielder Will Haus, defender Joel White and goalie John Galloway — all of whom played with Bernhardt on Team USA’s gold medal team in the 2018 Federation of International Lacrosse Men’s World Championship.
“It just really makes the continuity on the defensive end a lot easier just right out of the gate,” Soudan said. “When the finalists came out, [Jesse] was our guy. He’s going to play the best guys in the league. Right now, he’s slated as our number one defender.”
Now that he is a member of Chrome, Jesse becomes the second member of his family to play in the league, joining Whipsnakes midfielder Jake Bernhardt. The two brothers played together at Maryland from 2010-13 but will now be on opposing teams.
And soon, the PLL Bernhardt duo could become a trio with the addition of younger brother Jared. The 2019 Tewaaraton Finalist was six games into his senior season when it was cut short due to COVID-19.
Jared has been projected to be a high pick in this year’s PLL Draft even though he announced last August that he would pursue football in 2020 as a graduate transfer. His situation is more murky now, as another year of lacrosse could either replace that season or add onto it. PLL clubs have rights to their draftees for two years, so Jared could return to college and join his pro team in 2021, but would need a new contract to join the league in 2022.
The three Bernhardt brothers have only taken the field once together, which came on Oct. 7, 2017 in a matchup between the U.S Men’s Training Team and Maryland men’s lacrosse. While the elder Bernhardts were laced with blue jerseys and silver helmets, Jared — a freshman at the time — faced them in his white Maryland practice jersey and red lid. Though his older brothers got the best of him with a 10-9 Team USA victory, Jared notched three goals and an assist.
“That one opportunity we had was definitely unique and special. I don’t think many people get that opportunity,” Jesse said. “If [we were to be in the PLL together], obviously, it would be pretty cool. So I don’t know, maybe I can hold out long enough in my playing days to see that happen.”
Jared may have a decision to make in the near future on whether he will continue with Maryland lacrosse, but his older brother said he will remain an assistant coach for the team alongside his participation in the PLL — the same way he did when Tillman hired him in 2017 and he balanced coaching with being an MLL player.
“[Coaching is] definitely priority number one. It’s definitely what pays the bills,” Jesse said. “I’ve always loved coaching — it’s definitely my passion. Then on top of that, I get to coach at a place that I love to be. So that’s still going to continue, and Coach Tills has been nothing but supportive of my endeavors to continue to play.”
When Tillman arrived to College Park in 2011, he had only heard positive things about Jesse and the entire Bernhardt family. He spent three seasons coaching Jesse before he graduated and departed to the MLL, leaving a lasting impact on the Terp head coach.
Four years later, an opening arrived on Tillman’s staff after his assistant coach Kevin Conry departed to become the head coach of Michigan. Jesse’s professionalism on and off the field was one of the big reasons why Tillman wanted to add him to his staff.
Tillman has supported Bernhardt continuing his playing career while he coaches the Terps, and he’s confident Chrome is getting a star still in his prime.
“I know he’ll do a great job there. They are going to get a great one, and again, a true pro playing in that league,” Tillman said. “I don’t expect any dropoff in his play — if anything, I think they are getting a really good player that’s going to help that team in the locker room and on the field.”
In last year’s PLL championship on Sept, 21, 2019 with the Whipsnakes facing the Redwoods, Jesse and Jared were in attendance supporting Jake and the rest of the Terp-heavy squad. After the Whipsnakes snatched a 12-11 overtime victory, Jesse was jumping around and celebrating on the field with Ehrhardt — a memory Ehrhardt said he will always remember.
Whenever the PLL returns to action — whether it’s as scheduled or pushed back amid the pandemic — Jesse could be celebrating another championship, but with a Chrome jersey on his back. After seven years as a pro, he’s ready for a new frontier and excited to be part of the league’s evolution of the sport.
“Just kind of having the chance to now be a part of something that, hopefully, turns into something bigger than it was and maybe can sustain and eventually, maybe get to a level of the MLS,” Jesse said. “So younger guys could turn this into an actual profession. ... Just being able to kind of be a part of that is exciting.”