The holidays can be a hectic time for anyone, but Berry College head coach Tony Kunczewski certainly has had a busy week. Keeping his players focused in practice while planning a trip 1,000 miles north of Berry’s campus can do that.
Of course, then there’s preparing to take on the No. 4 team in the country.
No. 18 Berry will face its biggest test of the season Saturday afternoon as it plays St. Thomas in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs in St. Paul, Minnesota. Everyone knows the stakes, but Kunczewski hopes his team can avoid any diversions.
“It’s been a whirlwind the past couple days,” Kunczewski said. “There are a lot of other things to deal with, but at the end of the day our program has been built on avoiding distractions. When it’s time to practice, we are focusing on the task at hand.”
That task at hand is the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Champions — a St. Thomas team that won 37 games in the last three years. The Tommies have won nine straight and average 55.7 points per game through that streak.
Put simply, the Vikings (11-0) are facing one of the most regarded teams in D-III, one that’s made the national championship twice in the last five years. Berry has played southern powers like Centre and Maryville, but no program with a reputation like St. Thomas.
But while the Tommies (10-1) may cause concern for some, Kunczewski still brims with confidence about his team’s ability.
“You can even see it on film. Some teams while playing them almost seem intimidated,” Kunczewski said. “We are not going to play that way. There’s a certain mentality and a certain attitude you take. We know they’re good, but we’re really good too.”
Berry is the undefeated team in the matchup, and that unblemished record has come with a few close wins. While the Vikings have dominated the statbook plenty of times this year, every team has to squeak out a victory now and then.
In those wins, Kunczewski’s squad has relied on big plays to swing the momentum or allow it to pull away. Whether it is a key play on special teams or a deep touchdown pass at the perfect moment, these plays are almost instinctual for the Vikings.
“I think there’s highly motivated people who are attracted to Berry,” Kunczewski said. “There’s a lot of high character guys on our team. Those guys are not gonna be affected by one big play; they’re just going to be ready to make the next one.”
The Vikings got to Minnesota on Thursday, giving them ample time to prepare for the weather.
They intend to practice at the University of Minnesota’s stadium, which like the field at St. Thomas, is outdoors.
As his crazy week nears an end, Kunczewski hopes his players get rest and are mentally ready for the game Saturday. He knows all the stakes, but he’s got plenty of trust in the team he’s traveling with.
“We are playing a good football team, but of course we are. There are only 16 teams left in the country,” Kunczewski said. “I broke out the calculator the other day. There’s only 6.4 percent of D-3 teams still playing. We’re happy to be part of that group.”