Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
Berry’s football team won its fourth consecutive Southern Athletic Association (SAA) conference championship with a 55-28 victory against Austin College on Saturday.
In only their seventh year as a football program, the Vikings won their fourth straight SAA title, boasting a 7-1 record in conference play. Berry’s senior class has now won every season they’ve competed in, an achievement senior outside linebacker Brandon Palmer said he was proud of.
“It’s something else,” Palmer said. “It’s a category that not a lot of people get to be in. It’s pretty awesome to say that you’ve won four. Honestly it really hasn’t set in yet, because we’re still in the midst of playing and competing for the national title, so once everything settles down I’ll probably sit down and relax and think ‘man, we did something crazy.’”
Head coach Tony Kunczewski said this achievement was made even more significant because of the growing strength of the SAA conference. He also said he felt the team was playing with a target on their chest because every other team wanted to be the one to beat the three-time defending champions. And, for Kunczewski, that continued success comes primarily from the team mentality.
“The culture here is pretty good, and that’s a direct result of the type of players we’ve been able to recruit,” Kunczewski said. “They’re winners on the field, but they’re winners off the field too, which is way more important.”
Senior wide receiver Mason Kinsey said that this culture of winning comes from the attention to detail shown in practice.
“I came from a high school that didn’t win a lot of games, and coming here into a winning culture is not something that you should take for granted,” Kinsey said. “We take care of the little things. We don’t talk about winning, ever, so we just worry about the little things and then go out on game-day and execute our game plans and the rest will take care of itself.”
Kunczewski said that a lot of this success also comes from the pressure the coaches put on the players during the week.
“It’s a self-inflicted situation, where we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform, but if you put a lot of pressure during the week, during our workdays, then Saturday there isn’t as much pressure because you know you’ve prepared during the week,” Kunczewski said. “That’s been one of the formulas for us to be able to succeed on Saturdays. If you put that pressure on us during the week in practice, then there’s no reason to be nervous on Saturdays.”
But that pressure is not focused on results, according to Kinsey.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it pressure to win,” Kinsey said. “I would call it pressure to withhold a standard, because we have a winning standard here and we have a way that we do things. And if you don’t want to do things the way we do it then you don’t need to be here.”
Kunczewski, who’s been the head coach since the program’s inaugural season in 2013, said staff continuity was another crucial component to the team’s success. Rich Duncan and Nate Masters, the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, have notably both been with Kunczewski since the beginning. Kinsey said the role the staff plays cannot be overstated.
“We have a great coaching staff,” Kinsey said. “They prepare very well. Just talking to other players on other teams that are my friends, I think our coaches prepare more than any team in the country. They spend endless nights, endless mornings here just getting stuff together and trying to put together as good as a game plan as possible.”
Players and coaching staff alike will now have to be at their best to prepare for the team’s first playoff game. Berry will host Huntingdon College in the first round of the NCAA DIII playoffs, and Kunczewski said it will be a tough game.
“Once you get to the playoffs there’s no pretenders anymore,” Kunczewski said. “When you think of it, there’s 250-plus DIII football schools, and only 32 of them make the playoffs. You’re going to see the best, and we have our work cut out for us.”
Palmer said that he expects a close contest and hopes fans will turn out in large numbers.
“I’m expecting a really competitive game,” Palmer said. “They’re a very, very good team. We scrimmage them every year at the beginning of the year and they were the first opponent that we played. They were very tough and we could tell that they made significant gains in their talent level and the way they play cohesively together, so I think this weekend will be a great one. Two physical teams, and it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be Valhalla in the playoffs, and it’s going to be a fun atmosphere.”
None of Berry’s current players has ever lost a game at Valhalla, with the Vikings recording 22-straight home victories since their last defeat there in 2015. For Kunczewski, that all comes down to the fans.
“The game-day atmosphere is so great at our place,” Kunczewski said. “The fans are engaged, the drum-line, the cheerleaders, the Vikettes, they all contribute to such a great game-day atmosphere and we try to use that to our advantage. And I think that’s why the senior class has never lost at home, so we hope we can continue that.”
Kinsey agreed and said the fans are like a twelfth man.
“It’s awesome,” Kinsey said. “It’s really important. Our fans are awesome, our drum-line is awesome, the staff here, the people up in the box and alumni, everybody. It’s awesome to come out here and play in front of them. I’ve never seen a home stadium as loud and as energetic as ours whenever I go play at another school, but it’s really important. They keep the momentum in our favor and if a big play happens they help us stay at the other team’s neck, so it’s kind of like having another player out there on the field.”
Berry will host Huntingdon College this Saturday at 12 p.m. at Valhalla Stadium.