Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
In May, the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) awarded the Vikings its conference 2021-2022 Commissioner’s Cup, marking Berry’s first win of the award. This also marked the first win in the SAA’s 10 years of competition by an institution other than Rhodes College or Centre College, which finished second and third, respectively.
The Berry College Athletic Department started its 2022-2023 seasons with momentum from an historic win last school year.
The Commissioner’s Cup is the culminating award for championship finishes in all sports competed within the SAA, according to Angel Mason, director of Berry’s athletic department.
All eight institutions in the SAA earn points based on their top eight team conference standings at the end of a season, for both men’s and women’s sports. The school with the most points at the end of the academic year receives the Commissioner’s Cup.
According to Mason, the seven other SAA institutions previously competed against each other in the Division III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC). Berry became a founding member of the SAA and joined the NCAA D-III in 2012.
Mason called Berry’s win a huge accomplishment for a young D-III program, which she attributed to consistently outstanding performances by programs like volleyball and advancements by newer programs like track and field.
“High tides raise ships, so we’re all pushing one another to be better,” Mason said. “I think it helps the student athletes because they have a shared goal together, not just an individual program goal.”
Mason also credited the leadership demonstrated by student athletes and coaches during her three years as athletic director, particularly during the harsh circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. The SAA did not award the Commissioner’s Cup for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years due to the pandemic’s impact on sports.
“They’ve taken care of one another, so that we’ve been able to stay in-person, whereas some of our other conference schools have not been able to,” Mason said. “I think that’s the real reason we won the Commissioner’s Cup, because our student athletes and coaches showed a level of resilience that was unparalleled across the conference.”
Overall, Berry finished the 2021-2022 school year with eight SAA conference championships, the most in school history, including two program-first SAA championships for the men’s cross country and track and field teams.
Paul Deaton, head coach for men’s and women’s cross country, said that his men’s team roster has grown in number and incoming talent over the past four years, with a particularly unified class of 2023. As a result, he said, teammates felt that they had the best shot yet at winning the championship last fall.
“One of our talking points during the pre-season was that the best practice for trying to win the conference as seniors is to do it as juniors,” Deaton said. “It’s a spoken goal, no doubt.”
A winning culture in the Athletic Department and the strength of Berry as an institution, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, also contributed to the success of his team, according to Deaton, who has coached Vikings cross country for thirty-one years.
“The decisions that we made put us in a position to come out of COVID and compete again,” Deaton said. “What a taxing time for every college, and our cross country team came out and won the next championship.”
The impact of a positive department and team culture was also cited by senior Molly Bergin, chair of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and a member of the SAA-champion women’s volleyball team.
Bergin said her position on the SAAC position, the liaison between student athletes and the athletic administration, lets her see the hard work of athletic department staff behind the scenes that leads to awards like the Commissioner’s Cup trophy, as well as Mason being named 2021-2022 Nike Executive of the Year for NCAA D-III colleges.
“I feel really proud and excited to finish out my last year here at Berry with such an incredible department and such incredible leaders in the position that they’re in,” Bergin said.
According to Bergin, the SAAC officer hope to capitalize on the momentum of the Commissioner’s Cup win to encourage student athletes to support other Vikings sports teams.
“We have really put a focus on casting unity across the student body this year, and I think that this can be a great year where we see a lot of inter-team support across campus,” Bergin said.
According to Athletic Director Mason, the Department will continue pursuing its goal to finish in the top two of the SAA annually and expects to perform at maximum ability for the 2022-2023 season, hopefully bringing in another Commissioner’s Cup win.