In the Berry College football program, everyone rows. And all that rowing has led the Vikings down a pretty successful passage.
Junior running back Isaiah Dawson stepped up and scored four touchdowns while rushing for 155 yards on just 15 plays Saturday at Valhalla Stadium, providing the momentum for a 55-28 win over Austin College to clinch Berry’s fourth Southern Athletic Association championship in a row.
With the Vikings in just their seventh season on the gridiron, the team has now won at least a share of the SAA crown more times than not.
“It’s tough to do, and I’m just thinking of this senior class,” Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski said. “ In the regular season they’re 37-3, and that’s impressive. We have strong leadership among our team, and as a coaching staff, it’s just a joy every day to go out there and coach these guys, especially this senior class.”
Berry (9-1, 7-1 SAA) recognized several senior members of its football program, including 16 players who have the distinction of never having lost a home game and winning the SAA title every year of their college careers.
“It’s tough on them because they were the fourth class that we brought in, so they had a bunch of guys in front of them when they were freshmen in 2016 who played a lot of football and they didn’t play much,” Kunczewski said. “So to see these 16 guys stick with it is a testament to them. They’re obviously winners on the field, but they’re certainly winners off the field too.”
Coming out on top in the conference also comes with a third straight trip to the NCAA Division III Playoffs, which begin next Saturday. Berry will have to wait until Sunday evening’s NCAA selection show to find out who and where it will play in the first round.
The Vikings have hosted the first round of the playoffs the last two years followed by a loss on the road in round two.
“It’s a survive-and-advance mentality now,” Kunczewski said. “We’re excited to see where we’re going to be. We hope we’re going to be home next week, but we’re going to enjoy the experience.”
Berry fans got to enjoy a win Saturday buoyed by some hard-hitting defense and a balanced offense that finished with 537 yards total. Former Calhoun quarterback Gavin Gray threw for 196 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-19 passing, while Dawson led the ground game and set the Vikings’ record for most rushing touchdowns in a single game.
“We’re coming off of a really good game last week where we rushed for close to 300 yards. Our o-line is playing well. I think as a whole we’re figuring everything out up front, and we just knew what we had to do to control the line of scrimmage,” Dawson said.
The Decatur native scored on a 2-yard run near the end of the first quarter to push Berry’s lead to 17-7. He then capped the Vikings’ first drive of the second quarter with a 41-yard touchdown run before a 60-yard scamper for another score a few drives later.
“I just saw everybody pinch inside, so I figured I might as well bounce it out and see what I can get. The coaches always joke with me about how I’m not the fastest player on the team and all that, so it felt good to outrun some people today,” Dawson said with a smile.
The Vikings would scored 31 unanswered points during a stretch in the first half, which countered a pair of turnovers in the first five minutes of the game and helped Berry build a 41-14 lead at halftime.
Senior receiver Mason Kinsey, who came into the game needing just one touchdown catch to reach 50 for his career, was zeroed in by the Austin defense. While he didn’t get to the half-century mark, he did have nine catches for 132 yards to keep the Vikings’ offense moving.
“Whatever gets us points on the board, I’m happy with,” Kinsey said. “I don’t have to score to be happy. Like today, we won a conference championship, put 50-plus points up on the board, and I didn’t score, and I’m as happy as I can be.”
Austin (5-5, 4-4) had its most productive stretch in the third quarter as ’Roos quarterback Colt Collins scored on runs of 50 and 47 yards. Gray capped a nine-play, 65-yard drive with a 4-yard pass to fellow freshman Jimmy Decker for his first-ever touchdown, and Dawson scored on a 12-yard run in the fourth quarter to keep the Vikings well ahead.
Linebacker A.M. Harris returned a Collins interception 11 yards for Berry’s first score of the game, and kicker Trey Gregory kicked field goals of 36 and 20 yards while going a perfect seven-of-seven on extra points.
Kinsey got some extra good news this week when he received an invitation to the 95th East-West Shrine Bowl, one of the oldest and most prestigious college football all-star games.
The Vikings senior accepted the invite and will join some of the top senior players in the country in St. Petersburg, Florida, for the game on Jan. 18 at Tropicana Field.
The Demorest native earned preseason All-America recognition prior to this season and will graduate as the top wide receiver in Berry football history. He currently sits at 3,237 yards receiving for 49 touchdowns in his career, both of which are Berry records.