Berry College’s senior football players experienced something Saturday at Valhalla Stadium they had never witnessed on the Vikings’ home field.
In the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, the No. 19-ranked Vikings lost to Huntingdon 27-24, ending Berry’s season and its 22-game home winning streak that began in 2016.
It also snapped Berry’s two-year streak of getting a postseason victory advancing to the NCAA second round.
“When you look at this class right here, they’re 37-3 in the regular season,” Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski said. “There are few programs out there that can say that. They’re winners off the field, and that’s what we’re most proud of. They truly are. It’ll be exciting to see what the future holds, and they’ve left a pretty good blueprint for the underclassmen to be able to follow.”
Berry (8-3) scored late in the fourth quarter to go up 24-20 over the Hawks after the Vikings came up with a big fourth-down stop to take over possession. Former Calhoun quarterback Gavin Gray hit a wide open Zach Bush on an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the Vikings the lead with only 4:35 left to play in the game.
Huntingdon (9-2) answered back quickly however when Michael Lambert connected with Garrett Headley on a 56-yard touchdown pass just a minute later to give the Hawks the lead for good.
“I don’t think a lot of people gave us a chance here, but our guys did, and they believed in each other,” Huntingdon head coach Mike Turk said. “Anytime you come to a place like this, against a program like Tony and his coaches have built, and get a win, you’re doing something special. We’re very excited to be here and humbled by it.”
The Hawks will now move on to face defending national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor in the second round next Saturday.
Berry had one last shot to go ahead late in the game when Gray connected on three passes to get the Vikings down to the Hawks’ 33-yard line.
Three plays later, the Vikings’ hopes at moving on in the playoffs vanished when Gray was intercepted by Huntingdon’s Dylan Powell to seal the win for the Hawks.
“It was back-and-forth,” Kunczewski said. “Their offense has been good for a really long time. What makes them good is they can run the football, and they can pass. They have a really good balance on offense. Defensively, they did a good job up front against us. We hate that it ended this way, but we also give a lot of credit to those guys.”
Berry struck first early in the game when the Vikings’ Devin Grier stripped the ball from running back Eric Thomas on the Hawks’ opening drive of the first quarter and returned it 52 yards for a score to put the Vikings up 7-0.
From there, Huntingdon seemed to have an answer for everything Berry did. The Hawks responded with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Lambert to C.J. Pugh, but Trey Gregory kicked a 37-yard field goal early in the second quarter to push the Berry lead to 10-6.
The Hawks took their first lead of the game in the second quarter when a bad snap went past Berry punter Matthew Syverson and was recovered in the end zone by Triston Schmidthorst to put Huntingdon up 13-10 with 8:30 left in the first half.
Berry got the lead back with 3:42 left in the second quarter when Gray linked up with senior receiver Mason Kinsey on a 5-yard touchdown strike for a 17-13 score, but Huntingdon came back when Lambert and Headley connected on a 22-yard score to go up 20-17 with 10:50 left in the third quarter.
Milestones for Berry
Kinsey took his spot as the top receiver for Berry and the Southern Athletic Association this season, ending his college career with 3,343 yards receiving and 50 touchdowns. His 111.5 yards receiving per game and 16 touchdowns this season led the SAA, he ranked in the top 15 in both categories in NCAA Division III, and earned an invitation to the 95th East-West Shrine Bowl, which takes place in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Jan. 18 at Tropicana Field.
“I’ve been really blessed to be a part of this team,” Kinsey said. “I came from a high school that didn’t win a lot of games, and to be able to come here and win four straight conference championships and go 37-3 in the regular season — that’s pretty crazy.”
Isaiah Dawson, who finished Saturday’s game with 110 yards on 27 carries, became Berry’s single-season rushing leader with 1,069 yards on the year, making him the first ever Berry player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Both teams struggled offensively when it came to third-down conversions.
The Berry Vikings completed only two of their 13 attempts, while the Hawks were 4-of-14.
“We found ourselves in a lot of third-and-long situations, which is hard,” Kinsey said. “You get penalized easier or you get sacked. You put yourself in a hard situation because there’s not a lot of third-and-long plays in the playbook.”