Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor

Football players and Viking athletes from several other sports teams will open their seasons during the 2022-2023 school year under new leadership.

Berry’s Athletic Department has hired two head coaches and eight assistant coaches since the beginning of last school year, with many of them joining the staff over the summer. The school is currently searching to fill five other coaching positions.

Most of the turnover is due to assistant coaches taking head coaching positions and moving to Division I or Division II schools, according to Athletic Director Angel Mason. Mason said that Berry’s assistant coaches learn to balance many responsibilities, which increases their marketability.

“It’s positive for them,” Mason said. “I think it helps [us] as far as the kind of opportunities we provide, but it leads to us having a lot of openings that we have to keep going through this process with.”
Mason attributed the larger number of advancement opportunities to a mass exodus of retirees at D-I and D-II schools, which she said could be caused by many coaches reaching retirement age or desiring lighter workloads.

The Athletic Department’s major goal this year, according to Mason, will be finding a head coach for the women’s softball team and acclimating the new head coaches currently on staff, Astrid Escobar and Mick Hedgepeth.

Escobar, head coach of the women’s and men’s swim and diving teams, is the first female and the first person of a minority ethnicity to lead a dual-gender sports program at Berry, according to Mason.
Escobar said she feels the need to do well, as a trailblazer, and hopes to see Berry as an assumed presence on the national stage, as well as performing well at the conference level. However, her primary objective as a coach for the 2022-2023 season is to lay the foundation for a healthy team culture.
“I want to make sure the swim and dive program is known for bringing in and pumping out good people, that have values that will add to whatever community they are a part of later in life,” Escobar said. “[I want to make] sure that the culture is reflective of values that I think the college holds in high regard and that are essential to me as a person.”

Other goals for the upcoming season, Escobar said, include building a recruiting class that reflects the model student athlete and helping her student athletes see progress by setting new school records and personal bests.

In 2011, as a student athlete at Berry’s Southern Athletic Association rival Sewanee: University of the South, Escobar herself set the Cage Center’s unbroken venue record for the women’s 200-yard breaststroke.

The coach has previously held both head and assistant coaching positions at other Division III schools, most recently as an assistant coach at the University of St. Thomas swim and dive team, where she helped the Tommies transition from D-III to D-I in the 2021-2022 school year.

“It’s kind of like coming full circle,” Escobar said. “I got to swim in the SAA, now here I am coaching in the SAA. I’m sure I’m going to have a great group, and I’ll be excited to make them dive well and swim fast.”
Escobar, who also manages the schedule and facilities for the natatorium as Berry’s aquatics director, succeeds the program’s inaugural coach, Paul Flinchbaugh, who established the program in 2008.
Mason said that Escobar and Hedgepeth both were the first choice of student athletes involved in the hiring process.

Hedgepeth, who will lead the men’s basketball program, said he moved to Berry from Belmont University because of the opportunity to serve as head coach. Hedgepeth served as director of men’s basketball operations, effectively an assistant coach, at Belmont.

“When I got into coaching, I wanted to be the head coach at a place that I felt really fit me and fit my values,” Hedgepeth said. “I think that Berry fits me in a whole lot of ways.”

Hedgepeth said his goals for the 2022-2023 season are to build off last year’s success with his current players and to build a good recruiting class. The men’s basketball team made it to the first round of the NCAA D-III Men’s Basketball National Championship Tournament in March.

In addition to more appearances in national tournaments, Hedgepeth said he wants to eventually take his players on an international tour. Hedgepeth played professionally in Spain before taking his first job and toured his players internationally while assistant coach at Sewanee.

Hedgepeth brought Matt Richter to the Athletic Department staff as his assistant coach. The pair coached against each other in the SAA when Hedgepeth was at Sewanee and Richter previously worked as an assistant coach at Berry.

Hedgepeth reported meeting some of his players when they helped with a basketball camp this summer and said he is most excited to continue building relationships with his players.

“My goal for our team is for our guys to become better basketball players while they’re here but also better people,” Hedgepeth said. “I know that’s why I coach, because I had a phenomenal experience as a student athlete and grew, both on and off the court, and I want that for our guys as well.”

In addition to men’s basketball and swim and dive, four other sports will have new coaches this year. The football staff added Joel Elliott as offensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Bernard Granville as defensive line coach, John Sikova as offensive line coach, Jesse Williams as wide receivers coach and Wesley White as running back coach; baseball added assistant coach Connor Justus, and women’s and men’s track and field added Lydia Ulrich.

Viking Athletics is currently searching for a head softball coach, assistant softball coach, assistant coaches for the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams and a graduate assistant for the swim and diving teams.

“We’re looking forward to being the place to build some pride for our students as well as our athletes,” Athletic Director Mason said. “We think that we have right people in places, we have great students in place for that, and we just try and garner more interest around having sport be a social place for our campus and for all of our students.”

Posted by Campus Carrier

Leave a Reply