Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
With over a year since their last game, Berry football is finally set to return to the field this Saturday as they launch their campaign for a fifth successive Southern Athletic Association (SAA) championship.
Due to COVID-19, the season will look different than usual, with the conference split into two groups based on geographical location. Berry will face Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), Rhodes College and Centre College in the eastern division, playing Centre twice for a total of four regular season games. Each team in the eastern division will then face off with the team ranked identically in the western side for a post-season game, with the two first place teams competing for the SAA championship title.
Despite this unusual setup, head football coach Tony Kunczewski said his team is not changing their approach to the season.
“If they’re keeping score on Saturdays, we’re playing to win,” Kunczewski said. “So our preparation, other than the logistical stuff that we need to go through with the COVID-19 issues, mean we’re preparing the same way we’ve always played in terms of hopefully being ready to go and take it a game at a time. And we’d love to be playing for a conference championship by mid-March.”
However, because there are less games, the players are aware that their margin for error is smaller. Senior running back Isaiah Dawson said that, with this in mind, Berry cannot afford to start slow.
“We have to go in at a lot higher intensity,” Dawson said. “It’s like we’re starting in the middle of the season, it’s the final stretch, rather than being able to see where we’re at and gauge where we’re at. There’s no games that don’t matter necessarily this year. Basically, we lose and that could be it.”
But rather than suffer from this added pressure, senior defensive end David Galloway said it would only make a title that much more satisfying.
“It presents a new and unique challenge, because every team is going to be gunning for us since we’re conference champions, and now we understand we don’t have any room for error, so it’s just going to require for us to be our best,” Galloway said. “Whenever we do achieve this conference championship this year it’s going to mean a lot more because it was a shortened season, everybody was gunning for us and we had to struggle through Covid, and we were still able to become champions through all those adversities. So I feel like, if anything, it just makes it more of a gratifying experience.”
If the Vikings are to defend their title, their opening game against BSC could prove crucial. Berry were initially scheduled to host Centre this past weekend, but COVID-19 complications for the would-be visitors forced the game to be postponed. As a result, BSC enters the game having already begun their season with a 52-0 victory over Rhodes, while Berry will be coming in cold. But Kunczewski said that while this could disadvantage his team, they will not be looking for excuses.
“It gives them an advantage because, generally speaking, you’re much better the second game of the year than you are the first, just because you get first game jitters out,” Kunczewski said. “You can simulate it all you want in practice, but just the game environment is different, so we always think our biggest leap goes from game one to game two. We won’t have that advantage, they will, but it is what it is. We told our guys from day one, when we reported on Jan. 11, we’re taking it one day at a time, and we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”
With these and other COVID-19 setbacks in mind, Kunczewski said he was proud of his players’ attitude so far.
“Our guys have been tremendous in just rolling with the punches, so to speak,” Kunczewski said. “Every day is an adventure and, in doing this in the midst of a global pandemic, their attitudes have been great. We’ve had a few setbacks early with some positive tests, but they’ve really done a good job of dealing with that.”
The coaching staff have also had to adapt due to COVID-19. One of their biggest concerns is for a player to contract the virus and, through contact tracing, place several of his teammates in quarantine. Because of this, Kunczewski said they have to be a lot more careful with smaller details they would not usually consider.
“You’ve got to get a lot of guys ready, because you never know what to expect,” Kunczewski said. “The preparation becomes a little bit problematic, so that’s why you strategically run your week of practice to not put people in the same position in a position where both of them will be eliminated because of contact tracing. You’ve got to strategically think about that and, eventually, where people are going to be sitting on the buses and who rooms with what guys. You’ve got to think of all that stuff that you took for granted and never had to think about before.”
Galloway, however, said these concerns are not affecting team morale.
“This is the most energetic year since I’ve been here,” Galloway said. “Everybody’s flying around, having a good time. Practices are more fun that they usually are. We’re just excited. It’s been so long since we’ve been able to play, so to get back into it and having a real opponent for the first time in a long time, it’s been really exciting. We’re just excited to get back out there, get on the field.”
Dawson agreed with his teammate and said they are only focusing on what they can control.
“Our main focus right now is just getting better every day and focusing on one rep at a time,” Dawson said. “It’s a lot different with a lot of people being out, a lot of people having to step up and play different positions that they haven’t played because we’re short on numbers, but we’re getting closer to regaining full strength now, so it’s been good so far.”
That need to cover for missing players also means many freshmen are likely to be more involved this season than would usually be the case, according to Kunczewski. As such, he said was thankful that the team was still able to train in the fall and get to know their new recruits.
“In some positions, we are going to be really young, so hopefully we’re able to take advantage of what we’ve been able to do in the fall,” Kunczewski said. “I think in general, just as a freshman whether you’re a student athlete or just a regular student, there’s certainly more of a comfortability factor the second semester your freshman year, just from being away from home, from being in the classroom, and then you add football on top of that. There definitely is an advantage for the freshmen and we’re going to be counting on some.”
Another personnel issue will involve replacing the output from one of last season’s star players: wide-receiver Mason Kinsey. With 50 touchdowns in his four years at Berry, Kinsey set multiple program records. Now that he has graduated, the Vikings will need to get those points from other players. And while Kunczewski admitted you cannot simply replace a player of that caliber, he also said Kinsey is not the first one they have had to move on from and he has full confidence in the players at his disposal.
“That’s what motivates you to recruit, because you know you’re going to have to replace those guys eventually,” Kunczewski said. “We’re going to be young at the receiver position, but we’re going to be really talented there and we like our group of quarterbacks that we think have the ability to get them footballs, so we’re excited about that.”
As for Galloway, he said that losing a player of Kinsey’s level would encourage others to step up throughout the offense.
“You don’t replace a guy with just one dude, you replace them with multiple dudes, so I feel like with the whole entire offense, you’re going to see a lot more bright spots instead of just one very shiny one,” Galloway said. “It’s less of replacing and more of substituting with different factors and integral parts of the team. So I just feel like it’s going to be more interesting and it’s going to help us be more rounded without relying so heavily on one person’s performance.”
Kunczewski said this mindset also goes with his approach to defending their previous titles, in that he prefers to view his team as an entirely new entity.
“This 2021 spring team is not defending anything,” Kunczewski said. “This is a totally different team, made up of totally different players. There’s a different chemistry. We take it one year at a time, we don’t really dwell on what happened in the past. A lot of people ask is that an added pressure that we’ve won four in a row, and I think we apply the pressure on ourselves whether we’ve won four in a row or lost the game before. Self-motivation every week is what you’ve got to have.”
Galloway echoed that notion and said this team would also look different to those fans have watched before.
“You should be very excited for this team because it’s fundamentally different from any other team that you’ve seen previously,” Galloway said. “With a lot of Berry College teams there’s been a lot of heavy focus on a good defense and then a good running game and a huge passing vertical threat, and this team has those same principles, but I feel like they achieve those same goals in a very, very different way, and it’s going to be very exciting to see how those approaches and processes are going to help us win this conference championship this year.”
Berry’s first game will be at 6 p.m. on Saturday, on the road against BSC. They will then host Rhodes at 2 p.m. on Feb. 20 in Valhalla Stadium.