New stage. New stakes. Same old Vikings.
Berry College scored 21 unanswered points in the second quarter and held off a rally from Huntingdon to win 34-20 in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday at Valhalla.
And while the stadium featured NCAA championship banners and the visitor stands were fuller than usual, the No. 18 Vikings looked identical to the team that went undefeated in the regular season.
“If you’re going to prepare differently, I don’t know what you were doing the first 10 weeks of the season,” Berry coach Tony Kunczewski said. “These are the same guys we’ve had all year, and they played that way and rose to the challenge today.”
The win sets up a showdown with No. 6 St. Thomas (Minn.) next Saturday with the location to be determined today by the NCAA.
Sophomore receiver Mason Kinsey led Berry with five catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. Slade Dale recorded 159 total yards and two touchdowns, while tailbacks Jacob Collins and Austin Lowe combined for 107 rushing yards.
Like many times before, the Vikings didn’t light up the stat sheet, but came up with big plays in critical situations.
When Huntingdon went up 10-6 — its first and only lead of the game — early in the second, Berry’s C.J. Stone responded immediately with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The score sparked the 21-0 run that put the Vikings up 27-10 at the half.
The Hawks (9-2) came back with two scoring drives in the third quarter to make it 27-20. The very next drive, Dale found Kinsey for a 59-yard touchdown pass to give Berry the 14-point lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“I think the biggest thing to take away is that this is a team, first and foremost,” Kunczewski said. “We don’t get flustered. We know both good and bad things are going to happen in the course of the game. We can’t react too much from either of those.”
With starting quarterback Chip Taylor injured, Huntingdon went with backup Preston Samoden at the beginning of Saturday’s game. He was replaced with freshman Michael Lambert at halftime after completing just two passes in the first half.
Berry (11-0) contributed to the Hawks’ quarterback troubles by shutting down their run game, allowing just 1.3 yards per carry. The defensive line then feasted when the quarterbacks dropped back, recording six sacks. This was most evident on Huntingdon’s final drive of the game as it went from the red zone to losing 37 yards in four plays.
A holding call followed by consecutive sacks from Brandon Palmer and Tyler Bertolinni pushed the Hawks back near midfield. Lambert had no shot completing a pass on third or fourth down, with hands in his face within seconds.
“We always enjoy feeding off of each other as a defensive line,” Berry lineman Mamadou Soumahoro said. “And when we have our backs against the wall, we are going to push through, try and make plays.”
Berry scored on the first possession of the game, scoring on a Dale 3-yard run.
The junior quarterback came out two drives later, however, and backup Tate Adcock started most of the second quarter.
But the Vikings continued to have players step up, first with Stone’s kickoff return, which was the first ever for a touchdown in program history, and then a touchdown catch by tight end Adam Taylor, his first score of the season.
With the first half winding down, wideout Trey Ciresi — a fifth-year senior who’s been with Berry since its first season — caught a touchdown just before halftime to put the Vikings up 27-10.
Berry finds out today whether it travels or stays home to play the St. Thomas Tommies, which was the 2015 national runner-up. Whatever the case, don’t expect the same Vikings team to be playing them next Saturday.
“I think a huge difference between the teams in the past and the team this year is consistency,” Ciresi said. “Coach has created an environment where we know we are doing it right and all of us players are just buying in.”