Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
Berry football won its fifth consecutive Southern Athletic Association (SAA) title last Saturday after defeating Hendrix College 21-20. The championship win came after Berry finished top of the SAA’s eastern division with a perfect 3-0 record.
Tony Kunczewski, football head coach, said he attributed the team’s performance to the culture they had built within the team.
“We felt like we were able to overcome a lot of adversity, and I think that’s a credit to our coaches and certainly a credit to our players, given the culture that we had in our program,” Kunczewski said. “We have a saying here that calm breeds calm, chaos breeds chaos. And when it was crunch time, we were calm and executed what we needed to do to figure out a way to score one more point than the opponent.”
Luke Seale, senior offensive lineman, said this win had a special feel to it given the circumstances.
“We’ve won it five years in a row, it’s something special, but this one’s definitely different, being COVID,” Seale said. “This fifth championship has got a little bit of a special place in the football program, dealing with having to play in the spring and it’s only a four-game season. I feel like there’s a lot of factors that could have caused us to lay down and quit, but this team kind of pushed through and there was a lot this team overcame to win this championship.”
Senior defensive back Mark Sommerville agreed with his teammate and said it all came from the team’s hard work.
“It’s still surreal,” Sommerville said. “It’s a blessing and an honor to be part of this legacy. I’m grateful for my teammates and my coaches. It’s been a lot of hard work, especially in this time right now during the pandemic. We had a lot of unexpected events that we didn’t know how they’d turn out, but we were still able to continue to play this whole season, so that was great.”
One such obstacle came in the form of scheduling, as one of Berry’s home games against Centre College was originally postponed, then cancelled, due to COVID-19 concerns. Though disappointed to lose a home game in an already shortened season, Seale said the team showed great attitude in those harder moments.
“It kind of sucked for us seniors because we lost a game,” Seale said. “We were slated to play five games but because of cancellations we only played four, but this team showed a lot of resilience and a lot of composure in moments where things didn’t go our way, and I think we handled the cancellations and postponements really well.”
As a result, Berry played only one home game this season, defeating Rhodes College 54-7 on Feb. 27. Though seated in the away end to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents were allowed to attend as part of senior night celebrations. Sommerville said he would have liked to play more games at Valhalla during his final year, but at least that game was one to remember.
“A lot of families got to come see their seniors come out and then we blew them out, so seniors that don’t usually get to play got to play, and I love that,” Sommerville said. “That was the best part of it. I love being able to see people that put the work in that you don’t get to see on game days, because it’s not just us ever, the people that play. There’s a lot of players that put in the work at practice that doesn’t get seen on game day, but the fact that they get in to be seen by their families on game day, that was beautiful to see.”
That result proved to be the exception in an otherwise tightly contested season, as all three of Berry’s other games were won with margins of three points or less, including single point victories in their final two games of the season, against Centre and Hendrix. According to Sommerville, the ability to pull those wins off was all down to the team’s previous successes.
“Everybody stepped up and played their roles,” Sommerville said. “There were times where we were a little nervous, but in the end we knew we’d been there before. We got five in a row, so we’ve been in games like that, we know how to handle these games.”
These tight margins were nowhere more apparent than in the championship game, where Hendrix looked all set to tie the game up at 21-all in the fourth quarter, only for their field goal to come back off the upright. Kunczewski said they knew Hendrix had issues with their field goal team, so they wanted to make sure to apply pressure to the kick taker.
Sommerville, who was part of that defensive line, said the result came down to the team’s effort to do just that.
“The people that go to block it, it’s the corners, so I’m one corner and the other corner was Jordan Wilson,” Sommerville said. “I give 100% credit to him on that play, he went balls to the wall and gave it all he got on that, and it might not look like it but he really made that ball miss. And even our D-line in the middle, they had something to do with it. I was really blown away by that, because it literally won us the game. I mean there’s other things that went into that, but that specific play right there, that’s why we won by one point.”
For Seale, who was watching from the sidelines, it was hard to realize what had just occurred.
“I honestly couldn’t believe it happened,” Seale said. “I kind of paused and looked around. I thought I saw it wrong, I honestly did, but sure enough he missed it off the upright and we just played well enough to secure the victory in the end. If he would have made that and we went to overtime, I don’t know how the game would have went, but we won it when we needed to.”
In addition to the player’s efforts, Kunczewski said he was also keen to highlight all the work and dedication put in by administration and staff to even have a season, let alone a successful one.
“I think this really needs to be said, because the easy thing to do would just be to not have a spring season,” Kunczewski said. “I give a lot of credit to our own administration, starting with Dr. Briggs, Debbie Heida certainly, Angel Mason, our director of athletics, and our training staff. Our training staff was overworked with 21 varsity sports going on at the same time, being able to care for those athletes plus testing us three times a week. I think this would never have happened if it wasn’t for our own administration, like I said, president, vice president, AD, training staff. And I’ll give credit to the Southern Athletic Association, too. They did a really good job of making that final game special, that all of us played in the same stadium. It was a great venue and a great way to cap off a really challenging year.”