Berry trying not to believe the hype

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Disappointed by back-to-back seasons of 'almost,' Berry is determined to keep its eye on the ball in 2017.
2016 Berry athletics file photo

By Brian Lester

Nationally ranked and undefeated. It’s been quite a season for Berry.

Hype and success is seductive, however, and Vikings wide receiver Trey Ciresi will be the first to tell you he and his teammates aren’t about to fall head over heels for it.

“We’re not getting too caught up in us being ranked and in us being 6-0,” Ciresi said. “We’re preparing for the next game. We have to stay focused and not get distracted by all of this attention we are getting as a team.”

That’s because No. 19 Berry has been down this road before. The Vikings were on pace to win an SAA title two years ago and needed only one win in their final two games to secure the crown and punch a ticket to the postseason.

“We lost both and got shut out of everything two years ago,” Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski said.

A year ago, the Vikings lost only one game and shared the conference title with Washington U., which handed Berry its only loss of the year. Washington held the tiebreaker because of that win and received the playoff bid.

“We proved last year it’s tough for two teams from our conference to get into the playoffs,” Kunczewski said. “We were supremely disappointed being 9-1 and still getting shut out of the playoffs. But you’ve got to win your conference and we lost the wrong game last year.”

The margin for error is razor-thin in the SAA and the only sure-fire way to the postseason is to earn the automatic bid that comes with the conference title. An at-large berth is highly unlikely.

Because the league has so much parity, the Vikings know they can’t afford not to be ready to play. They looked ready this past Saturday, setting a school record for yards in a game (543) in a dominating 48-10 road win over an improved Sewanee squad under the lights. Berry is now 4-0 in league play.

“It’s a blessing and curse,” Kunczewski said of the parity. “It’s a blessing that we know we have a shot to win every week, but it’s a curse because you know you better bring it every week because the margin of error is so small. So far our guys are thriving on that.”

Ciresi understands that. He’s a fifth-year senior and one of the Vikings’ top offensive threats, snagging 27 passes and scoring six touchdowns to help fuel an offense that has scored 30 or more four times, putting up 40-plus in its last two games.

“We realize if we don’t show up one week, if we don’t bring the same focus and prepare the same way, that we could lose a game,” Ciresi said. “We all understand every game matters.”

When Ciresi arrived on campus, the Vikings were entering their inaugural season. They didn’t win a game and Ciresi didn’t play. He suffered a knee injury his sophomore year of high school and it never healed right.

“I was in practice for about two weeks at Berry and was still having problems,” Ciresi said. “I went to the doctor and found out I had a big stress fracture in my tibia. It kept me out that season.”

He used the redshirt season to mature as a player and he came back healthy as ever in 2014, earning honorable mention honors in the SAA. He tied for the league-lead in touchdown catches (six) in 2015 and broke the school record for touchdowns in a season (11) last year during a first-team all-conference season. The standout out of Jacksonville, Fla., has been just as impressive this year.

His success isn’t surprising.

“We’ve pretty much run the same offense since I’ve been here, and it’s allowed me to play free,” Ciresi said. “I just try to play hungry and know each week that I have something to accomplish and something to get better at. It’s something that has helped me as a player. You have to take every day to get better, no matter if it’s a walk-through, a practice or a game. That’s the mindset I have.”

Kunczewski is impressed with the type of player Ciresi has become in his career.

“The vertical passing attack with him is great. He has a knack for winning those 50-50 balls, and it helps when you are 6-2 and long,” Kunczewski said. “He’s a fierce competitor, and the thing with Trey is he is not afraid to block you either. He really is the complete package and does the things necessary for success.”

The presence of Ciresi in the passing attack has opened the door for Mason Kinsey to rise up. The sophomore leads team in receptions (32), yards (471) and touchdowns (8).

“Mason has really shown out,” Ciresi said. “We knew he had a lot of talent and he has stepped into a huge role for our offense. “It’s great we have different threats in our offense. We aren’t dependent on one player.”

Berry has cashed in on a great recruiting area and has built itself into one of the better programs in the South. Since going 2-17 in their first two years, the Vikings are 22-4 over their last 26 games.

“A lot of credit goes to our administration for putting us in a position to be successful,” Kunczewski said. “Credit also goes to those guys who weathered the storm those first couple of years. We are reaping the benefits of what they have sown.”

But there is still so much more the Vikings want to accomplish, including winning a conference title outright and going to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in program history.

Ciresi and company are locked in on both goals.

“We believe we are the best team and we are playing as if we are,” Ciresi said. “At the same time, we don’t take our opponents lightly and we prepare to take advantage of every Saturday and not leave it in anyone else’s hands to decide whether we make the playoffs. “We are trying to go 10-0 but before we do that, we have to go 7-0. That’s the kind of focus we have right now.”

Cru wins battle of ranked teams

Mary Hardin-Baylor scored 14 points in the first quarter and never looked back against Hardin-Simmons in a 17-7 win in a matchup between two top five teams. The top-ranked Cru improved to 5-0 overall and is 4-0 in the ASC. HSU, which entered the game at No. 5, dropped to 4-1 overall and 3-1 in the conference.

Defense was one of the big storylines as the Cru held the Cowboys to 191 yards of offense and just seven points. The Cowboys came in averaging nearly 70 points per outing.

Kris Brown played a key role, setting the tone with a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown to give UMHB a 7-0 lead. Brown finished his day with eight tackles. He ranks third on the team in tackles with 22 and his pick was his first of the season. The Cru is allowing just 190 yards and 6.8 points per game this season.

Regional notes

Forget about pressure because Tanner Young wasn’t feeling it as he filled in for the injured Devin Hayes at quarterback in Centre’s 38-3 win over Austin. His first career start was one to remember, with the junior going 19-of-27 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. It’s the highest passing total of the year for the Colonels. Prior to Saturday, Young had never completed more than three passes in a game and had thrown only one touchdown pass.

Down but not out. That was the motto for Trinity (Texas) on Saturday in its come-from-behind win ca. Rhodes. Trailing 34-24 in the fourth quarter, the Tigers forced overtime and then won when Austin Grauer hit Tommy Lavine on an 18-yard scoring strike. Mitchell Globe helped lead the defense, racking up 14 tackles as he became the 23rd player in program history to tally more than 200 in a career. He has 59 this season.

Kevin Hurley Jr. was injured two weeks ago against Sul Ross State. It’s safe to say he is healthy again. The sophomore signal caller played in the second half and ignited a rally for the War Hawks, who trailed Belhaven 23-7 at halftime. Hurley threw four touchdown passes and rolled up 245 yards behind an efficient 11-of-14 passing performance. McMurry won 42-30. Hurley has thrown for 697 yards and eight scores this season.

Just call them the dynamic duo. Christopher Monroe and J.C. Garcia were both impressive in Texas Lutheran’s 47-30 win over Louisiana College. Monroe, a true freshman, carried the ball 22 times for 125 yards and scored three touchdowns, missing out on the school record for touchdowns in a game by one. Garcia, a redshirt freshman, churned out 120 yards on 16 carries and scored twice. Their effort propelled the Bulldogs to their second consecutive win.

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Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
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