Bergman’s vision is back — and so are the Sabers

Bergman’s vision is back — and so are the Sabers

CHAMPAIGN — The doctor peeled the bandage off of his right eye, and Stan Bergman felt the need to bawl. Sitting across the room were his wife, Amy, and his son, Aden, and the St. Thomas More volleyball coach could see them with crystal-clear vision, something he hadn't experienced in seven years.

"It was one of those things that was kind of mentally overwhelming," Bergman said.

Bergman couldn't cry, though. He's learned over the last seven painful years — when he compared the vision in his right eye to a foggy bathroom mirror — that he had to limit the strain on his eye.

The moment, though, was life-changing.

And it came just in time to lead one of the most talented teams he's ever coached during his 18-year career, which also included seven straight 30-win seasons to close out his tenure at Centennial.

With 20/20 vision in both of his eyes, Bergman has watched his St. Thomas More team, led by Auburn signee and youth national-team setter/hitter Mica Allison, go 37-3 on its way to Friday's Class 2A state semifinal match against Harvest Christian (29-11) at Redbird Arena in Normal.

The bond between Bergman and STM likely would never have come to fruition had it not been for his waning eyesight.

Getting back in the game at STM

Seven years ago, when he was Centennial's head coach, Bergman noticed his vision becoming hazy, and he was diagnosed with a cataract. He had surgery a few months later, but the eye became infected. As one complication built upon another, his cornea was scratched, and soon after, doctors told him he needed a cornea transplant.

The transplant didn't take, and Bergman was left legally blind in his right eye. Simply grading papers for the teacher at Jefferson Middle School became frustrating. Hitting a volleyball accurately with little depth perception was nearly impossible. When he went to help with the harvest on his father's farm, one of his favorite times of year, he found it difficult to take in the experience as he craned his neck back and forth.

"It was hard for me to mentally focus, because the eye was always screwing things up," Bergman said. "Going from binocular to monocular vision was awful."

After the 2013 season, he retired from coaching at Centennial in order to give his eye a chance to heal. It didn't work.

So Bergman decided to jump back into the game with one eye, and an ideal opportunity arose at STM.

Bergman had coached several of the STM players — including current seniors Allison, Hayes Murray and Brianna Hopper — three years earlier with Illini Elite, a Bloomington-based club team. Immediately, he began to shape the program.

"We did a lot of conditioning right away," Allison said. "We did a lot of ball-control, simple movements. He wanted us to know the basics for the people who didn't get that. It was just something that not a lot of girls were used to if they hadn't played club before. Some people were like, 'Why are we even doing this?' But it was just good that he brought in the basics of what we needed to do."

The success didn't come right away. With a young team that year, the Sabers finished 21-16 and fell in two sets to Maroa-Forsyth in the regional title game.

Last year, though, the potential of this Sabers' team beyond Allison's prodigious talent became apparent. The Sabers split with eventual state runner-up St. Joseph-Ogden during the season and fell to the Spartans in a three-set sectional semifinal. With nearly every contributor returning, including four players who are 6 feet or taller, the Sabers were primed for a run this season.

And with their coach leading the way, they became a tight-knit group.

"As the years have gone by, we've grown really close as a team," Hopper said. "(Bergman) has really been the foundation of our faith-base at school. ... Having Bergman start that on the team has really helped build that (chemistry)."

All the while, Bergman couldn't shake the dream of regaining a full field of vision. And in the spring, he decided to do something about it.

Seeing it all come together this year

Bergman knew the risks. His eye could be gone come the fall if this procedure were to go awry.

To him, it was worth it. Over the years, he badgered his doctors. His eyes were in working order, he knew, aside from the cornea, the thin layer that covers the pupil and the iris. Why that couldn't somehow be fixed baffled and frustrated him.

Finally, a solution came about. In March, he met with Dr. James Chodash, a cornea expert based in Boston who told him about Keratoprosthesis, a surgery referred to as K-Pro.

Instead of a transplant, the surgery replaces the cornea with synthetic material. The risk of infection meant he may lose his eye, but that didn't faze him.

In July, he had the procedure in Chicago. And when the doctor pulled off the bandage, his life changed.

"It was kind of one of those moments that you don't know how to emotionally react to," he said, "so I just kind of sat there and let her continue to take a look."

For the first time in seven years, Bergman was able to see clearly out of two eyes. His vision straight ahead is now 20/20. His only remaining deficiencies are in his peripheral vision and farsightedness.

It took time, he said, to get used to the fact that he could simply pick objects up off a table with ease. It also changed his ability to coach in a meticulous manner.

"It's been very nice to be able to give them my entire focus without having the eye issue and just kind of focus on them, focus on the game, focus on the fundamentals of the game," he said.

"I'm able to pick up things that I wouldn't have been able to pick up with just the one eye, off of their footwork and other things like that. The details are just really flowing. It's really a lot of fun to see. Little twerks with the hands or with the shoulder or something, it's amazing what you can see when everything is in a three-dimensional type of shape."

Bergman still wears protective glasses in practice, when dozens of volleyballs constantly fly around the gym, to protect his new prosthetic cornea, but otherwise he's virtually unrestricted.

And on Saturday, nearly four months after the fog was wiped away from his line of sight, he'll watch with nearly perfect vision as his team lifts a state trophy at Redbird Arena.

"It's just a lot of fun, just knowing that I can be part of such a wonderful team, a very God-centered team," he said. "Having the eye come along with me adds the icing onto the cake so to speak. It's just been a great feeling. It's been a very stress-free season."