Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
In the midst of a semester filled with challenges, the football team is looking to the future with hope. After the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) tentatively announced a delayed conference season to be held during the months of February and March, everyone’s focus has turned to winning a fifth successive championship.
The pandemic has had a heavy impact on the football team throughout the semester, with both the introduction of new safety protocol and the suspension of practices in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak. A particular challenge, according to head football coach Tony Kunczewski, has been the restriction on large gatherings; given the size of the football roster players have been unable to practice as a full team. However, Kunczewski said they were still grateful for what they were able to do.
“We’re really thankful that we’re able to get out on the fields as a partial team at least, because I know a lot of places haven’t been able to do that,” Kunczewski said. “So in one sense it’s frustrating, because it’s just kind of been disconnected this whole semester. We haven’t been able to put our full team together and there have been starts and stops, so we really haven’t been able to get a flow. But at the same time, we’re thankful for what we’ve had, too.”
For sophomore quarterback Gavin Gray, adapting to all the new guidelines has been a challenge, but he said the players are still happy they get a chance to play.
“Now it’s taking temperatures, wearing a mask, bringing your own water bottle; you never had to worry about that before,” Gray said. “You work out with a smaller group of guys, that way if there happens to be a case you could quarantine that. We clean after every time we work out, make sure the weight room is clean, and then during practice we split up into three groups and you stay on one side of the field; you don’t cross over to keep the spread low. I think it’s been difficult, but it’s still football at the root of it. It’s been difficult, there’s definitely been more changes this year, obviously, but I still think guys are excited.”
As a coach, Kunczewski said he has been constantly adapting to the changing regulations and estimated the coaching staff to have drawn up between 10 and 15 different plans for the semester to deal with the evolving situation. However, he said everybody knew to expect those challenges, and it has given them a greater appreciation for the opportunities they do have.
“It makes us realize that things can be taken away in an instant,” Kunczewski said. “I think now the silver lining is it makes us appreciate every opportunity that we have, whether it be a lifting session, whether it be a practice. You don’t take that stuff for granted because we’re fortunate that we’re able to do it.”
With a date now set for a delayed season, Kunczewski said everyone was overjoyed, especially for the seniors. With 27 seniors currently on the roster, the football team will be graduating its largest class since its inaugural class in 2016, and Kunczewski said he was glad they would get a chance to go out with another championship.
Junior cornerback Jordan Wilson said the players were also relieved they would not go a full year without football, as most of them have been playing since they were very young.
“We’re ready to play a game,” Wilson said. “A lot of us have never had our fall without playing football. I know for me, personally, I’ve been playing football in the fall since I was four years old, so 16 years later, a fall without football is a little weird. I think we’re really excited to get out there for the spring, put the pads on again, go against people and hopefully win some ballgames.”
Gray said that another important reason the SAA’s announcement had lifted spirits was that it gave the players something to work towards.
“We’re doing everything we can right now in order to prepare for that spring season, just knowing that there’s a chance that we play games,” Gray said. “It’s exciting because we know all the hard work we’re doing right now is eventually going to pay off. I’m glad that we’re able to do stuff, and having that season to look forward to in the spring kind of drives everyone to really step up now.”
A lot will still be different when football resumes play, as COVID-19 protocol will still have to be enforced and players could miss out on games if quarantined. In addition, there will be no NCAA championship, and the SAA season has been reduced to only four regular games. Teams have been split between East and West, and a championship game between each group’s top seed will determine the conference winner on March 13.
For Gavin Gray, another important change will be the weather, as players are not used to playing in cold temperatures.
“Coming in the fall, you’re coming in August and it’s 100 degrees, over 100 sometimes,” Gray said. “So instead of coming in August, it would be coming in January, when it’s freezing cold outside. That would be a big change.”
Kunczewski agreed that the weather could be a challenge, but he said it will not be used as an excuse.
“It can be 50-60 degrees and sunny or it could be 30 degrees and snowing, or anywhere in between,” Kunczewski said. “So I think that’ll definitely have an impact, but all of us are in that together, so it’s not just specific to us. All the teams in our conference are going to have to battle that, so we can’t use it as an excuse because we’re all in it.”
Kunczewski said his main concern will be positive cases on the team, as he knows that no amount of preparation can ensure complete safety.
“We want to have everybody, give everybody the opportunity to play and we hope that we won’t have to run into those situations,” Kunczewski said. “But the reality is even at the highest level, the NFL, they’re running into those issues, and those guys get tested every day and they certainly have the resources to help prevent a lot of this stuff. So we realize that’s going to be part of it and we want to just do the best we can with the given parameters.”
Kunczewski said that now more than ever the team will be focusing on one game at a time; he likes to equate the season to a mountain, where the focus is simply on climbing rather than reaching the top. The end goal, however, remains the same as always: to retain their championship title for the fifth year running.
“Ultimately, one of our goals as we’re climbing that mountain is to win a conference championship,” Kunczewski said. “We’ve been fortunate enough for four straight years to do that, so that’s always going to be one of our goals. And this spring, that would be the only thing that we’d be able to do, so our goal is to win each game and have an opportunity to play the top seed from the western side of the conference in mid-March for a championship.”
Wilson shared similar ambitions, but said that was not the only objective he is setting for his teammates and himself.
“I think we just want to be able to win all five games,” Wilson said. “We want to finish the season undefeated; we want to be able to make it a five-time back-to-back conference championship season. I think that’s the biggest thing, but we also just want to be able to grow closer. There’s been a lot going on in the world, social issues and things like that, so we want to be able to grow as a team not only on the football field, but off the field, be able to make an impact outside. We all know, as 18 to 22 year olds, we can’t play football for forever, so we want to be able to make a change off the football field.”
Berry will play their first game at Sewanee: The University of the South on Feb. 6, 2021, and will host Birmingham Southern College in their first home game on Feb. 13.