The Berry football team, winners of the last five straight Southern Athletic Association championships, begins its defense of their SAA title on Saturday when the Vikings host the Trinity Warriors for a 6 p.m. Mountain Day clash at Valhalla Stadium.
But despite the consecutive title run, the Vikings will be going up against the team that was selected by the conference’s coaches to win it all, and one that has already shown why.
“They were picked No. 1 in the conference’s preseason coach’s poll for a reason,” Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski, who saw the Vikings selected as the No. 2 preseason pick, said about the undefeated Tigers who in their two wins this season have averaged more than 50 points a game while yielding just seven to their foes. “They’re talented on both sides of the ball.”
The Vikings, who are 2-1 following a 39-7 loss at No. 2-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater two weeks ago, made the most of having a week off, using the time to work on their own game before turning their attention to the Tigers.
“It came at a great time,” said Kunczewski. “That was a monster trip. We’re still young at a lot of positions, so anytime we can improve, it will pay dividends.
“We worked on ourselves. Our main focus was on Berry, not Trinity,” he said.
This past week, however, the Vikings focused solely on Trinity, which opened the year easily downing Beat Texas Lutheran 51-14 and Macalester 64-0.
On offense, one that averages an impressive 577 yards per game, Trinity has a potent pass game with quarterback Tucker Horn having thrown for 11 touchdowns and 312 yards a game, and to a deep corps of receivers – 17 players have receiving numbers – led by Ryan Merrifield and Auston Bertness, who each have three TD catches and have combined for 250 yards. The Tigers’ ground game is led by running back Winst Hutchinson, who is averaging 82.5 yards a game.
Defensively, in addition to preventing opponents from reaching the end zone, the Tigers allow just 179 yards, with Caleb Harmel and James Ogunrin as the unit’s leading tacklers.
“Despite the scores of their games, they were all competitive games,” Kunczewski said. “Plus, like us, they had an off-week, too.”
The Vikings will counter looking to use the experience they got against a storied Division II program in Whitewater and get back into the groove on both sides of the ball.
“Our guys looked them in the eyes and played all 60 minutes,” Kunczewski said about the game, one that saw Whitewater score 17 points – 14 of them aided by Berry turnovers – in the final two minutes of the first half that turned a close game into a 30-0 halftime score.
“We were able to control the ball on offense and had some long drives. We just didn’t finish them off,” he said. “The biggest thing is that we were competitive against one of the greats in Division III.”
Against Trinity, the Vikings will count on a two-pronged offensive attack, with freshmen running backs Brandon Cade and Josh Rogers spearheading the ground game, while quarterback Gavin Gray returns behind center to take snaps, with Blake Hembree, who played in the second half against Whitewater and threw for 90 yards and a TD, ready to step in if needed.
Likewise, the Vikings’ defense knows it will be tested by Trinity but has the tools to stop the Tigers with leading tacklers Brock Skinner and Jake Weitkamp anchoring the unit.
“Trinity has always been in the mix sine they came into the conference,” said Kunczewski. “We have our work cut out for us.”