Around the Region

Last season's heartbreak was this season's motivation

"Our goal is to be one of the last 16 teams standing at the end of Saturday,” said Berry senior tight end Tristen Cline.
Berry athletics photo

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

Tristen Cline remembers watching the Division III selection show a year ago and the sting that followed when Berry learned its hopes and prayers for an at-large berth were crushed.

“It was definite motivation for this season. We saw each game as its own contest and took it one game at a time,” the senior tight end for the Vikings said.

Ten wins and an SAA championship later, the Vikings are headed to the postseason for the first time ever, minus the drama and pain that comes with the selection show. Berry clinched its title prior to the regular-season finale.

Watching Sunday’s selection show was merely for fun. The Vikings learned they will begin their journey against Huntingdon.

“We were all in the auditorium watching the show and when we saw our name listed, we all jumped up and cheered,” Cline said. “It was a really cool experience. It’s one of those things I’ll always remember.”

Last season, 9-1 wasn’t good enough. It would have been this year, but the Vikings opted not to be complacent going into their regular-season finale against Trinity. Nothing came easy Saturday, but the Vikings rallied for a 24-21 win over the Tigers, determined not to let the legacy of this team, at least the regular-season portion of it, have any marks on it.

“You can’t beat an undefeated regular season,” Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski said. “It cements the legacy of our team. We also knew that finding a way to win against Trinity would improve our chances of hosting a first-round game. We’re not only excited to be in the playoffs for the first time, but we’re certainly excited to be at home as well.”

Once upon a time, the playoffs were only a dream. The Vikings were 0-9 their first season in 2013 and won just two games in their second season. They’ve been rolling ever since, going 26-4 over their last 30 games. The postseason, of course, is a different animal, but the Vikings intend to strike a balance between enjoying the moment and being ready for it.

“We want to make sure the guys enjoy it,” Kunczewski said. “We won’t shy away from all the pomp and circumstance that comes with the postseason. We want to embrace it, and at the same time, go about our business the same way we have all year.

The matchup between Berry and Huntingdon is an interesting one considering they’ve been scrimmage partners on a regular basis over the last several years.

“The scrimmage itself was pretty competitive. They have a lot of good athletes,” Cline said. “It’s exciting getting a chance to play them in an actual game.”

Berry and Huntingdon have played three similar opponents as well, with both teams beating Birmingham-Southern, LaGrange and Maryville. What does that mean? It’s hard to say.

“How much stock do you put into it? I don’t know,” Kunczewski said. “Every week is different.”

There has also been talk around the program in recent weeks about where it stacks up against others in the nation and just how good it can be on a bigger stage and if a team out of this conference can make a deep run.

So when Berry takes the field Saturday at Valhalla Stadium, it will be carrying not only the flag for its own program, but for the SAA as well.

“We’re putting some pressure on ourselves because we want to win for the program, but to some degree, the more successful you are in the postseason, the more validity it brings to your conference,” Kunczewski said. “We’re not just playing for Berry. We’re playing for our conference.”

Cline, a two-year captain for the Vikings and a player Kunczewski calls the epitome of what the Berry program is all about, has every intention of representing his conference well in the playoffs. But he also points out there really isn’t any need for added motivation.

“Just winning the game is motivation in itself,” Cline said. “We’re focused on the task at hand and want to play the best football we can.”

Both Berry and Huntingdon are putting up more than 30 points per game and holding the opposition to less than 20 points per outing on average.

“We’ll prep the same as if it were a regular season game,” Kunczewski said. “But on game day, there is that sense of this could be it, especially for the seniors. The intensity level definitely ratchets up in the playoffs. Our goal is to be one of the last 16 teams standing at the end of Saturday.”

That would be a big deal for sure, and Cline wants nothing more than to keep this special season rolling along. At the same time, he’s thankful just to have a chance to play beyond week 10.

“It means a lot because it’s a chance to play another week of football with my teammates, who are basically brothers to me,” Cline said. “We’re venturing into unknown territory and it’s exciting. We want to make the most of the opportunity in front of us.”

Regional notes

  • James Davis scored two touchdowns in the final game of his college career to help Sul Ross State knock off Belhaven 34-27. He also threw for two touchdowns and completed 13 of his 20 passes for 236 yards to help the Lobos end the year with a 5-5 record. The performance punctuated a season in which he threw for 1,118 yards and 14 scores. He also rushed for 506 yards and six touchdowns.
  • Louisiana College ended its three-game losing streak with a 61-38 win over Howard Payne in the season finale. Orel Ledet Jr. and Ryan DeMattie led the defensive effort with 21 and 16 tackles, respectively. The Wildcats allowed just 14 points in the second half en route to their third win of the season. Ledet and DeMattie finished as the top two tacklers on the team, with Ledet finishing just three tackles shy of 100 and DeMattie passing the 90-tackle mark as well (91).
  • By taking down Birmingham-Southern 42-17, Centre finished 9-1 and rolled into the offseason with a six-game winning streak. Centre scored 40 or more three times during the streak and held four teams to 17 points or less. Devin Hayes had thrown only seven touchdowns the previous four games but tossed four scoring strikes in Saturday’s win. The defense was on top of its game, bringing the pressure time and again and coming up with 13 tackles for a loss, including three by Will King.
  • Nate Hodapp set the single-season record for receiving yards in game, racking up 214 off 11 catches, including two for touchdowns, in Hendrix’s 35-21 win over Millsaps. The old mark was 187. Miles Thompson threw two touchdown passes on a day when he completed 26 of his 38 passes for 330 yards. Thompson also rushed for a score. His season total now stands at 47, with 37 of those touchdowns coming through the air.

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Columnist

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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