Bradynn Belcher, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
The No. 23 nationally ranked Berry College football team closed their regular season with a 9-1 record.
Berry’s chance at an undefeated campaign was relinquished by nationally ranked conference-foe Trinity University, who is currently branded as the sixth best team in the country in the same poll as the Vikings, according to D3football.com.
The Trinity Tigers, like the Vikings, had a 9-1 record at the end of week 11, but since their only loss came from a non-conference opponent, the Tigers secured the automatic bid for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) playoffs. There are 243 teams that comprise the Division III sector of the NCAA, but there are only 32 allotted playoff spots. 28 out of the 32 teams receive their tickets for post-season play by winning their respective conference championships. That leaves 215 football teams fighting for a seldom four at-large bids.
The NCAA Division III football program has the lowest access rate for the postseason of any NCAA sport, according to Berry’s head football coach Tony Kunczewski.
In the regular season, the Vikings averaged 56.22 points per game. Kunczewski’s defense also performed in a big way, allowing opponents to score an average of only 16.78 points per game. The Berry squad rushed for a total of 3,308 yards, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt compared to their opponents average of 2.5 yards per attempt.
In seven out of 10 contests, the Vikings put over 50 points on the board. The offensive output was so intense that the scoreboard could have been mistaken for basketball scores, according to Kunczewski.
When in consideration for one of the four prestigious at-large bids, the NCAA selection committee looks at three components: regional rankings, strength of schedule and record against regionally ranked opponents.
Berry is ranked fourth in Region III and the three teams in front of the Vikings received automatic berths to the tournament, making it feasible for the Vikings to be the first in line for a bid by the NCAA selection committee. Regarding strength of schedule, the Vikings competed closely against a top ten team while also being ranked in the top 25. Their record against regionally ranked opponents is 1-1, defeating Huntingdon in their first game of the season.
The Vikings fit the bill for one of the four remaining playoff spots, but the NCAA selection committee did not agree. At the discretion of the selection committee, Berry’s season abruptly ended after their win against Rhodes College on Nov. 11.
Berry Athletics supporters shared their discontent with the selection on social media. Berry’s head track and field coach Luke Syverson reposted the Division III Football Championship 2023 bracket on X, formerly known as Twitter, with the caption “System is broken. Definitely not a representation of the best D3 football teams.” Professor David Bruce Conn responded to Syverson’s opinion with agreement, commenting “unbelievable!”
Senior Katie White is a part of the football support staff with her role as a sport’s medical student worker. White spends a lot of quality time with the players throughout the highs and lows of the season, and she sympathized with the seniors that will never play a collegiate football game ever again.
“I felt bad for the seniors because their last game wasn’t a real last game since they didn’t know that it was their last,” White said. “So, it was tough for them, and I don’t really track the stats to know if they should have made it, but I felt bad for them because they didn’t get a real last game.”
Running back Brandon Cade, who is ranked third in the country by the NCAA amongst Division III for total rushing yards and second for rushing yards per carry, is not hanging his head about his season ending earlier than he hoped. Instead, he and his teammates are using this at motivation to work harder for next season.
“There are a lot of deserving teams, and they work just as hard as us,” Cade said. “I think we could have made a run in the playoffs, but there’s probably a lot of other teams that feel the same way as us. The only way to make it for sure is win the conference.”
Kunczewski believes that the Viking’s strength of schedule held them back in the eyes of the selection committee because they met every other criterion with flying colors.
“It [is] a shame to be left out because I think this is one of our best teams in the 11 seasons on this program,” Kunczewski said. “It is really fun coaching these guys and I think if we [were] blessed enough to get a bid, I think we have a chance to go pretty far.” Cade reflected on the team’s loss against Trinity because had this been avoided, the Vikings would have seen their name on the official championship bracket. Cade believed that he and his teammates let up on the Tigers, costing them the game. Throughout this experience, Cade has learned valuable lessons which he will hold close to his heart even after his football career ends.
“Not making the playoffs gives us some adversity to fight through because we didn’t have a lot of adversity this season,” Cade said. “We win games by a lot of points, but this gives us a reason to fight for the guys not coming back. It’s a testament to how in life, you always have to respond to the adversity. We slipped up against Trinity and in life, like that, every moment matters.”
The Vikings will be idle until they begin training for the 2024 campaign in January where Kunczewski and his team will use this experience to begin rowing towards a chance for the NCAA playoffs.