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Answering the Call

This basketball season wasn't supposed to go this way for Danny Berger — but you won't hear him complain about it.

After serving a two-year mission for his Latter-day Saints church, the 6-foot-6 former North Medford High standout was penciled in as a sophomore who would redshirt in his first season with the Utah State men's basketball program.

A year to shake off the rust, hopefully mature physically and become integrated into Division I competition seemed just the ticket for the 175-pound Berger.

But, as often happens, plans change.

"We just felt like we needed Danny to have a chance to compete," Utah State head coach Stew Morrill said of pulling Berger from a redshirt year one month into the season.

"It was just an unusual situation," added Morrill, in his 14th year with the Aggies. "He should be redshirting this year, that was the plan. Coming back off a mission, he would really benefit from a year learning the system and gaining strength and all that, but the nature of the season and for our team, we felt like we needed him."

Morrill had prepared Berger by saying that he was thinking of making the move about a week prior to pulling the trigger, and the small forward was excited about the possibility of not having to be sidelined for yet another year.

"It would have been nice (to redshirt) but coach Morrill's the ultimate boss and he said I've got to worry about this year's team, not next year's team," said Berger. "I'm fine with it. I'm excited to play, especially here, it's a great environment."

The move was predicated by a preseason injury to junior guard Antonio Bumpus that forced him to leave the program. It became that much more vital to bring Berger along more quickly than anticipated when senior power forward Brady Jardine was lost to a foot injury three games into the season and promising freshman guard Steven Thornton left the team Dec. 9 to return closer to his California home.

While all that was going on, Berger focused on working hard to simply getting back into the swing of things.

"I was just trying to play hard in practice and they noticed it, I guess," said Berger.

They most definitely noticed, according to Morrill.

"You never have to worry about where Danny's going to be mentally. He's solid as a rock and shows up every day," said the coach.

Berger's first game since playing for Chemeketa Community College in the 2008-09 season came Dec. 3 at Pacific. He came off the bench for that game and the following three games against Utah Valley, Wichita State and Seattle, increasingly showing his ability.

He posted 10 points, three rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes against Utah Valley, then backed that up with 12 points in 24 minutes against Wichita State. He was 4-for-6 from the field in both of those games, then notched 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes against Seattle.

It became clear that Berger had what it takes to move into a starting role.

"The game's really fast," he said, "so I just had to slow the game down and play to my strengths and be smart out on the court and not be in a hurry."

"I think I've gotten over the nerves and now I'm just trying to get more consistent with my shot," added Berger. "It's been a struggle coming back to it. It's been a little on and off."

His first start came Dec. 20 against the University of Texas-Arlington, and he responded with 12 points, three rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes. That game began a string of 17 straight starts for Berger leading into today's game against UC Santa Barbara. He's averaging 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists in about 27 minutes of play for the 14-13 Aggies.

"It's just been kind of an up and down thing for him, forced into duty having to all of a sudden perform at the Division I level," said Morrill. "I think he's settling in now and getting more comfortable. He's a very good passer and understands everything you're trying to do.

"It's been an education for him and he's going to do nothing but continue to get better for us as we get along."

Berger said it's a tossup when it comes to which was harder, adjusting to the Division I level of play or returning to the game after a two-year layoff. During his mission in Detroit, Berger tried to get to the gym and play a little basketball once or twice a week but didn't do anything too strenuously.

"The first two to three months back were really hard just because I gained some weight and was out of shape and it was hard getting back in shape," Berger admitted, "but once I got past that it's been pretty good."

"The jump from junior college to Division I was big because the guys are a lot bigger and stronger and just all-around better," he added, "but it's hard to say which has been harder to adjust to. It's probably a mixture of the two, both have been pretty difficult."

The hard work, however, has been worth it — as has been his decision to join Utah State. He initially signed with the Aggies in 2009 before going on his mission, and he said he couldn't be happier with how he's been treated ever since by those within the program.

"They're sticking with me and letting me kinda work through some struggles and it feels really good," he said. "They have a lot of trust in me and I couldn't ask for more."

Well, except for maybe a few more wins. The young Aggies have lost four games by three points or less — eight by seven points or less — and are only 2-10 when playing on the road.

"We've lost a lot of tough ones and some real close games that we had a chance to win," said Berger, "but we're still trying to gain momentum to get into the (Western Athletic Conference) tournament and make a run there (March 8-10 in Las Vegas). We've shown we can play with any team in the league so it's just a matter of finishing these games."

However it turns out, Berger said the first of his three available seasons at Utah State has gone as well as he could hope.

"This year has been good just so I can get used to the environment and get used to the game," he said. "The next couple years we've got a lot of guys coming back and we're going to be good. I'm looking forward to it. I'm trying not to focus on the future right now, though, but it's still in the back of your mind."

Just like suiting up for Utah State was in the days leading up to Morrill's decision.

"I missed the game a lot those two years (in Detroit)," he said. "It's been good coming back."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Former North Medford standout Danny Berger (12) is playing about 27 minutes per game for the 14-13 Aggies. - Photo courtesy of Ryan Talbot/Utah State Athletics