Berthiaume, Hartman Close In On 500 Wins As Spring Sports Begin

Story and Photos by Ben Kaufmann
County Courier

ST. ALBANS – The gold standards in Vermont softball by some measure, BFA-St. Albans coach Richard “Bert” Berthiaume and Missisquoi’s Jay Hartman are approaching their milestone 500th wins in charge of their respective programs. Though totals from the early years of high school softball in Vermont are hard to come by, the state’s next-highest historical wins total is believed to be Paul Remick’s 383 and counting at Danville.

Neither Berthiaume and his 496 career wins nor Hartman and his 483 anticipate stepping away any time soon. Over a Zoom call on Monday evening, the pair discussed the accomplishments and the fierce-but-friendly rivalry between BFA and MVU.

“One of the things I’ve been able to do over these last nearly 40 years is build a ton of relationships. Not only with the players and athletes from MVU and from BFA, but also around the state with a tremendous group of coaches, and Bert knows many of them as well as I do,” Hartman said. “But I can honestly say for me there’s not a better friendship in the coaching fraternity and there’s not a better rivalry than the guy that’s on the screen with us tonight. I enjoy and look forward to matching wits against Bert and against the Academy any time that we get the chance.”

When approached about participating in a story about the impending milestone, each coach was quick to point to the countless others who make 72 combined years and nearly 1,000 combined wins possible. Beyond the obvious nod to the many players and parents, Berthiaume and Hartman acknowledge that stellar assistant coaches have been crucial to all success.

“When you surround yourself with good people who have the same values and beliefs that you have, it makes coaching so much better,” Berthaiume said.

“Ann (Sargent) has been with me 33 of the 34 years. Sometimes in a different capacity, sometimes it was JV coach or whatever it is but it’s been 33 of the last 34 years. Kevin McGinn has been with me the last 12 years and before that it was Jeff Moulton for 10 or 12 years.”

For Missisquoi, the partnership between Hartman and Rich McVicker is more that of co-coaches than head coach and assistant. McVicker has been with Hartman from day one after Hartman approached him while the two were singing in their church choir ahead of the 1983 season.

“Of course we might have missed a few notes in the song that we were supposed to sing while we were talking,” Hartman joked. “But that was 39 years ago and I can’t think of ever doing this without him. He has certainly been the best recruit I’ve ever had.”

Hartman pointed out on Monday that McVicker actually leads him in career wins. Though Missisquoi has 485 wins since the pair took over, Hartman missed two games in 1996 after failing to heed the warning when an umpire said he didn’t want to hear another word from the Thunderbird skipper.

What makes these gaudy win totals all the more impressive is the fact that BFA and MVU are inter-county rivals who routinely face off at least twice a year. Berthiaume and Hartman have also met eight times in the playoffs, including twice in the Division I championship. Hartman won the first pair of playoff meetings; a quarterfinal in 1993 and a 3-1 championship triumph the following year. Since then, Berthiaume has won all six playoff meetings, including a thrilling 3-2 win that came down to a play at the plate for the 2019 championship.

“It’s good fortune that we have a great rivalry and a lot of respect that we have for both programs,” Berthiaume said. “They’re both great coaches but I can call them my friends as well. I’ve known Jay since he was a teacher at Missisquoi and I coached Little League Baseball against Rich, so I’ve known both of those guys forever. We’ve gone to the same church together and I feel pretty proud of the fact that I can call them friends as well.”

Reaching such an impressive milestone takes more than longevity, it requires almost unimaginable success.

Remick has been at the helm in Danville for 36 seasons and 11 championship games en route to his 383 wins. Former Otter Valley coach Patti Candon grabbed four championships and 347 wins in 33 years. Enosburg’s Pete Gervais is among the state’s wins leaders, guiding the Hornets to a 330-140 record from 1986-2013 and collecting three Division III state titles (2005, 2007 and 2008). In 37 and 33 seasons (there was no 2020 season due to COVID-19) respectively, Hartman’s 483 and Berthiaume’s 496 are in a realm of their own. Hartman has never had a losing or .500 season. Berthiaume finished below .500 twice, though it’s worth noting that the last one was in 1991 and he’s had three undefeated campaigns since then.

Both programs would likely have a few more wins if it weren’t for the other top Division I program in the northern half of the state: Essex. With all due respect to some wonderful games over the years involving Brattleboro or Mt. Anthony, the rivalry triangle involving BFA, MVU and Essex has been as good as it gets in Vermont sports for decades. In the last 15 postseasons, the Hornets have faced BFA or MVU 14 times with six of those contests decided by a single run – the most recent saw Berthiaume’s Comets erase a four-run deficit in the final inning of the 2019 semifinal.

“I said to my team today, ‘If we want to win a state title, not play for one, we have to go through those top teams,’ ” said Essex coach Eric Rutz, who joined the Hornets as an assistant in 2016 and took over the program in 2019. “If we don’t go through BFA and MVU I won’t be satisfied with it.”

Rutz said a number of factors go into the success and longevity Berthiaume and Hartman have seen, not the least of which is that both are educators first and coaches second.

“They both are very experienced as educators and coaches. So they understand the things to add to softball. As educators they’re used to things like practice planning, longevity, dealing with high school players and families. Those are things I’ve had to learn.”

Rutz praised the softball-crazed community in Franklin County, something Hartman and Berthiaume said they’ve been blessed to benefit from.

“If you go back over the years, we’ve been very fortunate at MVU and I think BFA can say the same, these are baseball communities,” Hartman said. “If you look around the county, it’s not just the two of us. You look at Fairfax, you look at Enosburg, you look at Richford, year in and year out all five of our schools are extremely competitive in whatever division we happen to be in. As much as I’d like to take the credit for what’s going on here at MVU, I also have to remember that the table was well prepared and the cupboard was far from bare here when Joe Fiarkoski left after the 1982 season.”

“They take their ball seriously in Franklin County,” Rutz said. “There’s a joke among the coaches that when you win you get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and when you lose you get nothing in Franklin County.”

Though there’s no doubt about the talent pool, recognizing and cultivating that talent is a skill Berthaiume and Hartman have mastered. Rutz talked about frequently seeing both coaches around Little League fields in the summer and said each has the skill to turn that preparation into varsity wins.

“Jay’s experience allows him to understand the intricacies of the game. He knows how to disrupt you and put people in place. The community brings quality players and Jay makes them better,” Rutz said, adding that Berthiaume has a slightly different but equally effective approach.

“He’s an expert at putting the puzzle pieces in place by the end of the season,” Rutz said of Berthiaume. “We’ve had success against them in the regular season and mixed bag in playoffs. By the time we get to them, Bert has figured out how to put them where they need to be by that point.”

While plenty of talent has come through each program – that play at the plate to end the 2019 championship involved the 2019-20 Gatorade Player Of The Year tagging out the honoree from 2018-19 – the coaches have had to adapt to significant changes in the game over nearly four decades. A change from the slingshot style of pitching in the 80s to windmill windups led to chess matches involving small-ball and baserunning. A rule change moving the pitcher back around 2010 coupled with better equipment and strength training has opened up scoring thanks to a power surge.

“I used to bunt at least 10 times a game and last year (2019) I don’t think I bunted 10 times all season; it’s just a different game,” Berthiaume said, adding that Meghan Connor’s 23 career home runs (in three seasons, no less) and Chelsea Abbott’s 14 in recent years would have been unthinkable earlier in his tenure.

“My next highest prior to that was two for a career.”

One point made clear Monday was that each coach places other aspects of the role ahead of winning, even if that mindset took time to learn. Hartman said his favorite part of the job is watching the hundreds of girls who have come through his program graduate or participate in theater or band or another sport. Berthiaume, who noted that he just discovered he has coached the mothers of eight of the 16 players on this year’s junior varsity squad, said his favorite moment from Monday’s practice was the time the team spent sitting in a circle and joking with each other while handing out uniforms.

“Early in my coaching career, a lot of my focus was on winning, winning, winning,” Berthiaume said. “Then I realized after 10 years or whatever that it became more about the relationships with the kids and that’s the part I really love.”

Hartman followed that statement with similar thoughts.

“Rich has always had that point of view but it’s taken me a while to get there,” he admitted. “We were very blessed. Our first two years we went to two championship games and walked away with a title in ‘84. For me that’s kind of what it was all about. It’s been more of an evolution for me and I’d hate to normally admit it but after 40 years you can admit it now, that you’re probably a better person now than when you started coaching.”

The ups and downs of multiple seasons necessitate finding purpose beyond wins and trophies if one wants to stick around. Even for the best of programs, reaching the top of the mountain is a challenge. Berthiaume has won all eight of BFA’s softball championships but also has all eight of its runner-up finishes. Since defeating BFA for that 1994 title, his second, Hartman is 0-3 in championship games with all losses coming by one run. 

“Making a difference in the lives of those kids and being competitive through sports is teaching life lessons,” Rutz said. “For me it’s a life-lesson sport. You have to tolerate failure on a daily basis.”

“I’m not sure I know them well enough to talk about them independently. Both probably do it because of the lives they make a difference in as a coach and the communities they live in.”

Each coach’s family has played a key part in the years of success. There are the obvious on-field contributions – Hartman coached three daughters and Berthiaume won two titles with his daughter on the field. Hartman shared a story about his family encouraging him to take to the dugout when his father passed away the day before a playoff game and Berthiaume spoke of his wife, Melanie’s, selflessness.

“I’ve been very fortunate, my wife has always supported my coaching,” Berthiaume said. “She knows it’s a passion of mine and I’ve coached some years all three seasons, she’s always been there supporting me.”

When the milestone wins come, Berthiaume and Hartman want the community to remember the many folks who made it possible. Hartman said a count taken ahead of Monday’s interview indicated that more than 350 girls had gone through his program; Berthiaume wanted to be sure that all 34 years of players know they’re responsible for the 500 wins even if they aren’t on the field when the moment comes.

For Hartman, number 500 isn’t likely to come this season. MVU would need to collect the 17 necessary wins over the course of a 16-game season plus playoffs – Hartman’s teams have reached 17 wins in one campaign just twice before (1984, 2019). Berthiaume needs just four wins to reach the mark and, if he can get a win over Hartman in the season’s second game, could be sitting at 499 when his girls head to Essex on April 24.

“I don’t want him to get there on our field, I’m sorry,” Rutz laughed. “I wish them the best this year. I hope they win their 500th games and I hope they don’t do it against us.”

The totals are likely to climb. Both coaches were adamant Monday that they don’t plan to step away from the game they love any time soon. There will be more wins and probably more trophies, but more importantly there will be graduations, concerts, proms and the discovery that the mothers of half of a team were also Comets or Thunderbirds.

If it were all about wins, there’s probably not a number high enough to satisfy. But as long as the measure of success is the other special moments, it’s hard to imagine a Vermont softball season without Berthiaume, Hartman and their trusted assistants leading the way.