On the court or on the mound, Vermont Miss Basketball Elise Berger does it all

You could call Elise Berger a Swiss Army knife, a state champion — even Captain Chaos, the nickname she earned for her messy room as a kid. Now, as her time at Champlain Valley Union High School comes to end, you can call her Miss Basketball.

Berger of Shelburne took the crown this year as the best player in girls high school hoops in Vermont, as selected by the Burlington Free Press. The award came on the heels of a Division I championship over St. Johnsbury Academy this March, good for the team’s second title in a row. 

“We all knew going into the season that this was going to be a grind,” said Berger, who’s played organized basketball since the first grade. “It was cool that we had six seniors on the team that have been playing together for a really long time and that we were able to bring the team together, put in all that work and have it all pay off in the end.” 

The 5-foot-11-inch point guard averaged 8.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.2 steals per game for the Redhawks this season en route to earning the program a seventh Miss Basketball victory. The senior and teammates also helped send 13-year head coach Ute Otley off to her new post leading Norwich University’s women’s team with a record 10th Division 1 win.

“She’s pretty much a coach’s dream,” said Otley. Berger was a four-year varsity player and a mature locker-room presence who thrived in any role, she said. 

Photo by Catherine Morrissey
Elise Berger poses at her home court.

Berger’s win comes at a time of unprecedented focus on the women’s college game and its recent superstars, like Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers and Angel Reese. Berger is all for the attention. “I think it’s really cool to see the growth women’s basketball has had,” she said. “It’s really cool to see that growth and it becoming a big national thing.”

Otley hopes those who tuned in to watch Clark play realized just how many women play the game “in a way that’s at such a high level that this is really entertaining to watch.” 

Berger’s playing style is far from Clark’s high-octane shooting from deep but commands a similar respect on the court. She’s “a floor leader who can advance the ball quickly, who knows how to create shots for her teammates and whose presence on the floor demands so much defensive attention that she can make the defense do what she wants it to do and create the kinds of shots she wants for her teammates,” Otley said.

Berger said she likes to attack the glass and do “the smaller things that set people up and get the team in good positions.” Sometimes Otley had to remind Berger to look for her own shots, too. 

Berger separates herself with her playmaking, Otley said. “We haven’t had a kid at 5 foot 11 inches that can handle the ball the way she can,” said the coach. Plus: “She has a true pull-up jumper.”

“That combination of ball handling, size and midrange game,” Otley said, “made her a pretty unique athlete that we could use defensively a million different ways.” 

Her athletic prowess goes further: Berger is even better with a baseball in her hand. She not only pitches for her high school’s baseball team but has also twice been selected to pitch for the U.S. women’s national team, which she first made at 16 — the earliest age allowed.

“There definitely are some nerves, but it’s also really prideful, especially being from a small state like Vermont that a lot of people haven’t heard of outside of the U.S.,” she said. “Being able to show what we can do as a team is also really cool.”

Berger has committed to play baseball for Bard College. She has been in touch with current players and other commits and is excited to get to Bard and out on the field with them. “I was definitely looking for a school that had the academics and the intensity that I was looking for but also was a supportive place to play baseball,” she said. “Bard was the best mix of the two for me.” 

Although she loves basketball, played soccer through middle school and dabbles in mountain biking, baseball “has always been the big thing,” said her mother, Elizabeth Berger. 

At 4 Elise would watch Lake Monster games start to finish, and growing up, she’d drift asleep to the sound of baseball broadcasts, her parents remember. She made every school project she could baseball themed.

Photo by Catherine Morrissey
Miss Basketball, Elise Berger (right), poses with her coach Ute Otley.

Berger’s father, Chris, is a California native and big fan of the Golden State Warriors and Cincinnati Reds. His love of sport spread to the young Berger, who, raised in Vermont, became a Red Sox fan — an infinitely better option, she’s quick to say, than choosing the Yankees. She stuck with the Warriors too for their dynastic run over the last decade.  

“They’ve been super supportive of whatever I’ve wanted to do,” Berger said of her parents. “Whichever teams I wanted to be on, whatever training I wanted to do, different tournaments we needed to go to — it was always, ‘We’re going to figure out a way to make this happen for you.’”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges along the way. She felt on the same level as boys throughout Little League, but as those male teammates got older she worried she was falling behind. Those feelings continued into her first two years playing for the Bases Loaded Bulldogs, a local travel team she started playing for at 13. But by year three, feeling more trust from her team, she grew more confident. Her pitching improved. 

“That year I think I grew comfortable in my role as a pitcher, understanding that I wasn’t necessarily going to keep up with them velocity-wise on the mound, but I had other aspects that made me a good pitcher,” she said.

It came down to work ethic. Berger said she’s driven by her competitive nature, hatred of losing and the collective euphoria of team success.

“If I lose because I feel like I got outworked by somebody, that’s something that drives me to keep pushing and keep working harder,” she said.

And it shows. Said her father: “She puts in hours every week on either strength work or specific conditioning work for her pitching muscles. Since middle school, it’s been pretty constant every week. She’s incredibly disciplined.”

Back in the summer of 2022, Berger had to miss basketball workouts because of national baseball team obligations. Otley had challenged Berger a few months prior to get faster and tighten her ball-handling, and she worried the young standout wouldn’t have time to do it, her coach recalled. But Berger came back that fall with improvement in every area Otley wanted.

Heading into last summer, Otley challenged Berger to hone her 3-point shooting. Once again, Berger came through, said her coach, meaning opponents in her senior season were forced to respect her shot and bring double teams out of the post. 

That dedication to her craft was present even when Otley first met Berger when the latter was a fourth-grader at a basketball camp. “I remember thinking that she was a serious little kid, very focused, very dialed in. She wasn’t there to goof around; she was there to learn,” Otley said. 

Berger’s mother recalled Elise’s baseball games: “I’m there cheering her on, and I’m like, ‘Hey, Elise, did you hear me cheer?’ and she says, ‘Nope, didn’t hear.’ She doesn’t notice anybody in the stands, she’s just focused on what she needs to do.”

But Berger isn’t always stone-faced. “Once you break under Berger’s shell, she definitely talks a lot,” said basketball teammate and fellow senior Samara Ashooh. “She’s a very funny person, and she’s always down to go out and have some random adventure. People say that she’s quiet and reserved, but I think she’s actually a very open and communicative person and always a good presence to be around.”

Berger’s mother called her daughter a “chatterbox” at home. The two like to cook together, and Berger loves showing off her 30-plus Spotify playlists filled with recent music finds — lately some country, classic rock and hip-hop.

As Berger steps into the more competitive college game, her parents are confident she’ll be able to handle it. “Our attitude for college baseball is the same as it’s been,” said her father. “We feel she can usually rise to the level she needs to, and work as hard as she needs to, to be competitive, and we’ll see how it goes. She’s going to have to earn her playing time like anybody else.” 

In the meantime, Berger said she appreciates the chance to give back to her community. She got invited to throw the first pitch on opening day this month for the Champlain Valley Little League, the same one she played in those years ago. 

“I’ve been able to come back into my community and be a role model for younger girls,” she said. “When I was younger, I know I had role models that I aspired to be, and being able to go meet and play with some of them now has been huge. I hope that I get to be that person for some girls.”

(The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)