TAKE IN THE SCENE. More than 3,000 fans fill Valhalla Stadium, leaving seating scarce. The noise level rises as the seconds tick down to kickoff. Coach Tony Kunczewksi stands on the sidelines talking to coaches and players and leveling his gaze at the opponents. The loud speakers play music and remind fans often that today’s game is the first football playoff game for Berry.
Roughly 2041 days after being introduced as the first Berry head football coach, Kunczewski and his charges stood ready to check another mark off a long list of firsts.
The undefeated and two-time Southern Athletic Association Vikings follow the script early, grabbing a 6-0 lead. But special teams play puts them in a bad spot and early in the second quarter the home standing Vikings find themselves trailing Huntingdon 10-6.
After the Hawks’ point after sails through the uprights, Kunczewski nods his head and implores his players. What he says is lost over the din of noise but this is far from the first time his Vikings have faced adversity.
Flashback to a hot, humid late September afternoon in 2014, Kunczewski finishes talking to his players gathered at midfield at Barron Stadium, remember Valhalla wasn’t finished yet. Berry’s defense stood tall against the defending SAA conference champion Rhodes College that day, allowing only 131 rushing yards and holding them to 12 points.
Unfortunately, Berry’s offense came close but couldn’t add any points of its own. The game marks Berry’s 12th consecutive loss. The Vikings have yet to taste victory. They’ve come close, but the second- year program is itching to break through and get the first win. The Vikings played hard. When told this, Kunczewski nods.
He agrees, but quickly notes he doesn’t believe in moral victories.
“I told the players we want to show our fans what we can do in all phases of the game and we’re excited to get back and play on the 100th anniversary of Mountain Day.”
The next week trailing 23-10 in the fourth quarter, Berry’s offense responds scoring two late touchdowns including a 63-yard gem from then quarterback Dale Jackson to Trey Ciresi to tie the game. A touchdown pass in overtime wins it, setting off an epic celebration.
A smiling, elated Kunczewski celebrated with the team afterwards.
“It was looking bad there for a while, but I couldn’t be prouder of our guys they hung in there and fought to the end.”
Hanging in there and fighting to the end. Two things Berry fans have become accustomed to seeing from these Vikings. The never-say-die attitude has helped the Vikings compile an impressive 4-1 record in overtime games.
But it also serves the squad well when things don’t go as planned.
“We don’t get flustered. We have a lot of guys that have been here before. We understand that throughout the course of the game there are going to be good things that happen and there are going to be bad things,” Kunczewski says. “We don’t get too low on the bad things and don’t get too high on the good things.”
Huntingdon’s ensuing kickoff sails through the air and lands in the capable hands of CJ Stone standing at the 10-yard line. He explodes past two defenders and the field opens. He cuts left and races for the sideline not stopping until he reaches the back of the end zone. Berry’s sidelines explode, the fans yell and Coach K nods. He expects his charges to step up to the challenge, but they’re not done yet.
Berry’s defense, ranked as one of the tops in the nation shuts down Huntingdon’s attack, and the Vikings’ offense jolts to life with Adam Taylor scoring on a 27-yard pass from Tate Adcock and Ciresi scoring on a 12-yard pass from Slade Dale, giving the Vikings a 27-10 halftime cushion.
The energy ripples through the crowd. The feeling is palpable in the stands and on the field. The faithful gathered at Valhalla sense another Berry win and yet another milestone for the fifth- year program.
Flashback to five years two months and two days before the playoff game and the first milestone for Berry football occurs. Valhalla stadium exists only on paper; it will eventually be constructed in one of Berry’s numerous cow pastures. The Berry eagles are capturing attention but have yet to become an Internet sensation and standing in front of a small crowd in the Cage Center is a man named Tony Kunczewski. Until a few moments before, he was an assistant football coach at nearby LaGrange.
And now Athletic Director Todd Brooks tells everyone Berry couldn’t have found a better man or better coach to start its football program.
Kunczewski decked out in a nice suit and tie flashes a warm, genuine smile. A smile many people will see, including numerous parents and recruits. It’s the kind of smile that warms a mother’s heart and reassures a dad that this man plans to be a good role model for his son.
And along with the smile, comes the words. The verbiage so many coaches utter that can sound cliché but in this setting and with this man rings genuine.
“Berry is one of the most beautiful and impressive campuses in the world. It’s truly a unique place that combines excellent academics with a strong history of success in athletics,” he says. “We are going to make Berry College and the Rome and Floyd Community’s proud of this football program both on and off the field.”
The wins have come. Back-to-back conference titles, a playoff berth and along with that a slew of academic all-conference honorees, sportsmanship awards and a group of players who give back on campus and in the community.
A funny thing about milestones, right when it looks like it’s passed, something can halt the progress. And Huntingdon has no willingness to exit the playoffs quietly.
The Hawks flip the script on Berry, launching an 18-play drive, which gobbles more than nine minutes off the clock and ends with a touchdown. The score cuts Berry’s lead to 27-17. A field goal later in the quarter brings the score even closer, 27-20, and the sense of excitement and enthusiasm from the Viking faithful turns a bit nervous.
While nerves may be showing in the stands, the players refuse to have any of it. The Vikings don’t get flustered. They remain on an even keel and before the quarter ends, Dale hooks up with
Mason Kinsey for a 59-yard touchdown reception, staking Berry to a two-touchdown lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The noise ratchets up again and now something else permeates the sidelines. The players exchange looks. Some of the larger ones just nod. The Vikings know they have the advantage.
Kunczewksi’s defensive pedigree remains unquestioned. A two-time all conference performer at Grove City College at cornerback and linebacker, he spent several years coaching linebackers, defensive backs and as a defensive coordinator helping build solid players and a solid unit.
Upon arrival in Rome, he noted that he was a defensive guy, but would still have a good offense. He was right on both marks. Berry’s defense is tough minded and loves to battle. And now with 15 minutes to go and a two-touchdown lead, the defenders wave their hands in the air and implore the crowd and get ready to wreak havoc on Huntingdon.
Huntingdon’s offense mounts two serious scoring drives, but both times Berry’s defense rises to the occasion, forcing two turnovers on downs. Four quarterback sacks help lead the way as Brandon Palmer records two, Tyler Bertolini adds one and the big man with the big name, Mamadou Soumahoro has one too.
Berry fans know about Sumahoro and opposing lineman, running backs and quarterbacks have nightmares of the soft-spoken 6 foot 2, 235-pound lineman. Sumahoro, a two-time All-America selection and two-time SAA defensive player of the year, holds a slew of Berry’s defensive records. Over his four years he’s tallied an eye popping 37.5 sacks, 49 tackles for loss, forced nine fumbles and generally wreaked havoc and chaos upon any offense unlucky enough to line up against him.
But in typical fashion, after the Huntingdon game when asked about the defense and the six sacks the unit accumulated, Sumahoro makes sure everyone gets their due.
“We were physical up front. We were getting pumped up to be the most physical team, and we did that for the most part,” he says. “We sack as a unit. I had two sacks, but Brandon had two big sacks too. We had six total sacks as a team. We were just getting after it as a defense.”
Indeed, Berry’s offense didn’t score again, but it didn’t need to. The defense pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter, and the Vikings players and fans celebrated the schools first playoff victory.
When asked about the big win Kunczewski’s face changed into the big smile, but he also kept ahold of the discussion.
“It’s obviously a huge victory for us as an institution, but I also think it’s huge for our conference. We had the heartbreak of being 9-1 last year and getting shut out of a potential at-large bid to the playoffs,” he says. “We wanted to win because of our institution, but it’s a great win for the Southern Athletic Association as well.”
A big win. A playoff victory. The first for the school. A week later the Vikings travel north to Minnesotta to national power St. Thomas. The script didn’t read well for Berry early, as the home standing Tommies jumped to a 22-0 lead.
Right before halftime, the Viking’s get a chance to cut into the lead and have the ball inside the 10- yard line. St Thomas’ defense holds though, and the Vikings turn the ball over on downs. A huge blow, but not the death knell it might be to other teams. “We knew this was going to be a battle. We knew we were going to get smacked in the mouth, but we knew we were going to get back up and smack them back in the mouth,” Kinsey says. “That’s how we’ve played all year. We weren’t going to lay down, and we were going to keep fighting. Not getting in (scoring at the end of the half ) didn’t make us quit. It made us come back and keep on fighting, and that’s going to carry on to next year too.”
Berry did respond scoring two touchdowns but wasn’t able to shake the early deficit falling, 29-13. A couple of close calls seemed to go St. Thomas’ way during the contest but Kunczewski shot down any talk about it.
“This is the fifth year of our program, and we don’t make any excuses. We got beat by a good team by a really good program. You’re going to get breaks sometimes and breaks are going to go the other ay sometimes,” he says. “Those calls had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. We are going to own it. Hats off to them. They are a great program and played a great game.”
A year ago, Berry won nine games and found itself on the outside looking in at the playoffs. This year the prefect record ended in the playoffs second round. But as Kinsey’s previous words attest, the Vikings won’t dwell too much on the season before getting back to work.
“Hopefully our guys will learn from this from begin on a bigger stage. And hopefully we can take that in the future and be better be better for this experience,” Kunczewski says. “Hopefully it will help our conference and put Berry on the map in Division III football.”
A day after that 12th loss for the program in 2014, a sportswriter penned a column saying to hang with the Vikings, because the team showed a ton of promise. The piece ended by saying that the wins would come, but it may take time.
Since that day, Berry has won 29 games, losing only 10. They have won two conference titles, accumulated more all-conference players than it’s easy to count and not only reached the Division III playoffs but also won a playoff game.
Five years ago, Kunczewski promised a team and a program that would make everyone proud and the man with the hard to spell last and the winning smile has more than delivered on his promise.