Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
The Berry College football program has missed out on the playoffs for the second consecutive year, but the team feels that progress has been made in re-establishing a winning team culture on the gridiron.
The Vikings ended the season with a home win against Hendrix College on Nov. 12, finishing tied for second in the conference with a final record of 7-3 overall and 6-2 in conference play, an improvement from last year’s 6-4 overall and 5-3 conference records.
Head Coach Tony Kunczewski said that the Vikings’ challenge in making the post season in recent years is that football programs have improved across the Southern Athletic Association (SAA). Half of the teams in the conference received votes for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Top 25 teams in Division III this season, according to Kunczewski.
“As much as you’d like to win [the championship] every year, the other schools in our conference aren’t just sitting back and letting it happen,” Kunczewski said. “The competition is getting more and more challenging.”
The Vikings’ three losses were by no more than two touchdowns and came against the opponents expected to be their toughest of the year, including no. 4 ranked University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, conference rival Birmingham-Southern College and 2021 SAA champion Trinity University.
“I wish we were still playing because this was a fun group to coach, and I feel that we were getting better as the season went on,” Kunczewski said.
A 31-30 win against Centre College to start the second half of the season marked a turning point for the team’s performance, Kunczewski said.
Down by a score of 3-17 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Vikings rallied to tie the game and eventually win in overtime. The team had ended a streak of two losses the week before and went on to win three of their remaining four games.
Defensive linebacker Jake Weitkamp, a graduate student who was a junior during the season shortened due to the COVID-19 pandmeic and played this season on a fifth year of eligibility, said the shift in the last moments of the Centre game exemplified a wider shift in team culture this year.
“Collectively, we looked at each other and said, we’re not going out this way,” Weitkamp said.
Kunczewski compared the legacy of this year’s team to the 2015 team that included the players who built the program, which also ended with a 7-3, 6-2 record but laid the groundwork for the program’s five
While the program strayed from its core values in recent years, according to Kunczewski, the senior leadership this year re-established a team culture that leads to success, based on the acronym BUILD, including creating unity among the players.
“It’s a closer group that, we’re playing for one another and playing for the name on the front of our chest instead of the individual accolades,” Kunczewski said.
Weitkamp also noted that the complacency and divisiveness among his teammates from last year was gone, saying that this season’s team is the most cohesive out of all five years he has played at Berry.
“I think we did a really good job making sure everyone felt a part of the team,” Weitkamp said. “Everyone has an equal role whether you’re starting every game or you’re a practice squad guy.”
Suffering losses together contributed the camaraderie, Weitkamp said. Now with the conference bullseye on two-time defending champion Trinity University, the Vikings face less pressure to succeed, something that Kunczewski said helps when re-building team culture.
Having continuity in coaching staff through next spring is another piece of the puzzle falling back into place for Berry, Kunczewski said.
Defensive Coordinator Joel Elliott, who joined the football program staff in April, said that he looks forward to working on follow through with players in the off season and in spring training to help them come out on top rather than fall short.
“In a lot of places, [7-3 is] a great season,” Elliott said. “Here that’s not the standard. Our goal is to be playing right now, so we gotta keep working to be sure we’re building in the right direction.”
Although the team is losing senior leaders, Weitkamp said that underclassmen played significant roles on the team this year.
Seeing good leadership this year and having more game time experience will particularly help this year’s underclassmen starters continue the team culture and to develop more confidence in tight games.
“Oftentimes, handling adversity requires some maturity, and certain times we showed that, certain times we need to get better, for sure,” Weitkamp said. “I’m excited to see how the program gets better not only physically but also in their mental toughness.”