Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier assistant sports editor
Joshua Mabry, Campus Carrier sports editor
Fresh from their third consecutive SAA championship title, Berry football wants to avoid lingering on previous success as they prepare for the new season.
Having won the championship three years running, every one of Berry’s returning football players has now won rings in every season they have played for Berry. Because of this, Tony Kunczewski, the head football coach, wants to make sure his players approach the new season with the correct outlook.
“The challenge is creating a certain type of mindset, that we don’t forget how hard it was to get to the point that we are now as a program.” Kunczewski said. “I’m tremendously proud of the effort our guys are giving, I think we have a lot of talent, but we want to make sure that we have the correct mindset going into the season.”
As such, Kunczewski said that the team’s internal motto this year is to keep on climbing and just forget about previous titles, as they don’t want the program to plateau.
“We don’t want to build just a good team, we want to build a sustainable program,” Kunczewski said. “And to us, to me personally, the most impressive programs out there are the ones capable to consistently do it year in year out. Because once in a while you can catch lightning in a bottle and have a really good season, but are you establishing a really good program? It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s even more difficult to stay there.”
Part of maintaining enthusiasm comes from taking every season as a fresh start, a point Kunzcewski makes sure to ingrain in his players by reminding them that the season ahead has nothing to do with the ones that came before.
“Every season is a brand-new season,” Kunczewski said. “We’re not defending anything. We’ve been fortunate to win the conference championship the last three years, but we’re not defending the 2016, 2017 or 2018 championships, because there’s nothing to defend when you’re brand new.”
The team’s new look comes a lot from player turnover, as the team lost a couple of key players to graduation, but Kunczewski said he isn’t worried.
“Every year you’re going to lose key contributors, but you can’t just make it about the individual person,” Kunczewski said. “You got to make it about the team, and that’s been our focus.”
With that focus comes the need to integrate a new wave of players, and Kunczewski said they have a buddy system in place that takes care of that. As part of the system, every new player is paired with one or two upperclassmen at the beginning of camp, so they can share their experiences with the freshmen and help ease the transition from high school to college. Additionally, the team has a leadership council, composed of four seniors, as well as three captains chosen by the players themselves.
As one of the captains, junior middle linebacker Jack Carroll is aware of the extra responsibility but said he does not let that affect him.
“Knowing you’re a captain means a little bit more, but I don’t change what I do,” Carroll said. “I just go out there every day, every rep, and give it a hundred percent, lead by example.”
But showing a good example is about more than performing well on the pitch, and Carroll has taken his coach’s directions on the new season to heart when speaking about previous successes.
“We’ve got to get away from that, because we’ve got to make our own identity for the 2019-2020 season,” Carroll said. “We got a new identity, because last year’s last year and we’re not that team anymore. We’ve got to get away from that a little bit and stick to this year, game by game.”
While the players and coaches may not be looking at previous seasons, outsiders still do. D3football.com, whose weekly rankings look to determine the best twenty-five division three teams in the nation as voted on by “a panel of 25 coaches, sports information directors and media members from across the country,” according to their website. This year, for their preseason rankings, D3football.com ranked Berry as the 16th best DIII football team in the country. Nevertheless, Kunczewski said he doesn’t bring this up with his players, while Carroll said he was not even aware of Berry’s ranking and did not put much stock in them.
“It’s just preseason rankings,” Carroll said. “It means something, but I think we’ve got to go out and prove ourselves again as a new team. That’s based off last year, but it’s a new year, a new us, and I think we need to focus on where we are game by game.”
The one thing both Carroll and Kunczewski do, however, hope remains the same this year is the home support the team has been receiving at Valhalla Stadium, a crucial part to their success according to both of them.
“We have one of the best fanbases in DIII, so that’s part of the reason we’re very, very good at home, because we have a whole community behind us,” Carroll said.
Berry football currently find themselves on a 17-game winning streak at Valhalla, a statistic Kunczewski was quick to credit to the fanbase.
“I would certainly attribute the 17 straight to our fans,” Kunczewski said. “We’ve been tremendously blessed. We’ve led the conference the last few years in attendance, and that’s played a huge role in helping our guys perform on Saturdays, so we thank all of them and hope they continue to come out.”
Junior cornerback Mark Sommerville said that he has very high expectations for the upcoming football season, mainly because of the team’s successful past.
“I hope to have continued success from what we’ve built in the past and I think we have the talent to do so,” Sommerville said. “I feel like we have to continue to reach higher than we already have.”
Sommerville said that, even though the team is highly ranked this season, they are still going to have to work hard every day in order to achieve success and get to the point in the season where the team wants to be.
It is difficult when a team is highly ranked because in ways, it feels like they have already won and advanced to postseason, according to Sommerville.
“I know we control our own destiny, so if we continue to be the best that we can be, then that’s all that I can ask for,” Sommerville said.
Senior left tackle Antonio Brown said that the ranking is nothing more than a ranking because it’s still preseason.
“We won’t know how truly good we are or how we’re going to matchup until next week whenever we face Maryville,” Brown said. “So right now, just focusing on ourselves and working, getting better, competing and just getting ready for Maryville.”
Freshman running back Zack Fuller said that the team has to stay humble even though they are ranked highly.
The biggest trial for this year’s team will be overcoming mental challenges and gaining a mental edge, according to Sommerville.
“We have to focus in on smaller things and make sure that we’re not missing out on the little things that can allow big things to happen,” Sommerville said.
Brown echoed Sommerville’s remarks about the small details.
“Everything matters, every step matters, so I am focusing on doing my job and being the best leader that I can be on and off the field,” Brown said.
Personally, Sommerville said that he hopes to be first team All-Conference this year. He was second team All-Conference last year.
In order to achieve this goal, Sommerville, who said that he considers himself the leader of the defensive backs, said that he wants to make sure that all of the defensive backs are on the same page. He said that he hopes that this will hopefully seep down to the linebackers and defensive line, allowing the team to play as one unit.
“If we can be one unit, then that’s going to make it easier to make plays on the field and communicating,” Sommerville said.
Brown said that he wants his team to compete but also have fun, all while representing Berry well.
“If we do our jobs, then winning and all that will take care of itself,” Brown said. “But really getting a team that’s focused, that’s going to be ready for competition, that’s going to be full of energy and just focus on having fun.”
Fuller said that the Vikings are looking at its process right now.
“At the end, the goal is to win a conference championship and make a run at it in the playoffs,” Fuller said.
Being untied and playing as one unit is something that will be key for this team, according to Fuller.
“I think it’s going to be us being together as a team and playing together as a team with intensity, effort and a focus,” Fuller said.
Berry will begin its season at Maryville on Sept. 7, before hosting LaGrange at Valhalla on Sept. 14, at 6 p.m.