Burger helps 'Bows reach their peak
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Beyond homegrown juniors Dennis Lajola and Daniel Llarenas, the strongest Hawai'i tie to the University of Hawai'i men's team might be a cop who daylights as assistant coach.
Mike Burger, a 12-year Honolulu Police Department veteran, works the graveyard shift in Kahuku. By day, he is in his second season as John Nelson's assistant at UH. He finds time to also sleep, "here and there."
The Baldwin graduate walked on in Mānoa in 1991 and was Jim Schwitters' captain as a senior, when he played No. 1 doubles with Chanon Alcon. When Alcon went from UH to Mid-Pacific Institute, Burger, who previously coached Mid-Pac and 'Iolani, took his place.
A season before, the Rainbows had won their first WAC championship. Last year they did it again, and broke through with their first NCAA Tournament victory, upsetting 20th-ranked Oklahoma State.
Saturday morning, they face No. 21 Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA Men's Tennis Championship at Stanford. Hawai'i is now ranked a program-best 37th and coming off its third consecutive WAC championship, upsetting 28th-ranked Fresno State in the final at Fresno.
"If we just play like we did at the WAC we'll be OK," Burger says. "Everybody worries about their own court, starting with doubles."
The 'Bows have won seven of the last nine doubles points, after starting the season 2-7. According to Burger, they are dramatically better everywhere at this stage of the season.
"We are a lot better from doubles all the way through No. 6 singles," he says. "Dmytro (Kovalyov, a freshman from the Ukraine) is now in the lineup and winning matches at No. 6. Dennis is playing good again. Andy (Weber) is good and Leo (Rosenberg) has gotten better. Jeremy (Tweedt) has improved tremendously."
The top three players — all-WAC senior, junior and sophomore Weber, Lajola and Rosenberg — are a combined 43-14. Rosenberg has lost just once this year. "He likes to prove everyone wrong," Burger said. "He wants to prove to us he should be playing No. 1. That's good for us."
In the past three years, lots has been good for the Rainbows late in the season. They have peaked perfectly. Burger takes little credit.
He was enticed to come to Mānoa because of Nelson's "great track record" at San Diego State and Hawai'i's inaugural WAC title, and a long history with the Lajola family. Burger coached former Rainbow Derrick Lajola at 'Iolani and remembers playing doubles with Dennis when he was a child.
His duties include helping with recruiting, ordering equipment, helping to form the team's first booster club last year and soaking up everything Nelson brings to the tennis court.
"He is a unique tennis coach," Burger says. "He has probably the most positive outlook of any coach I know. He doesn't let negativity get in his way. He has a master's in education from Stanford and a jiu jitsu background and he's learned to tie it all in. He has really good mechanics and stroke production with the players. I see other colleges and less than 5 percent of the coaches do private lessons like John. Most don't develop players. They get there and they are good, but they don't get better."
These guys have. To get to their first Sweet 16 however, the 'Bows will have to get much better. They have never played Quinnipiac, but they are a combined 0-33 against Pepperdine and seventh-ranked Stanford, which beat them 6-1 in February.
Burger has taken on the optimism of his mentor.
"All these guys are winners," he says. "From being with the team last year I learned that — in the classroom, in life in general as well as on the tennis court. They always want to get better. They take pride in representing Hawai'i. Me and all the alumni appreciate that."