Penn-Trafford grad Tony Kunczewski leads Berry football to Division III playoffs
When Tony Kunczewski was hired as Berry's first football coach in 2012, he knew the team would take some early lumps.
But he believed better days were ahead.
Kunczewski, a 1996 Penn-Trafford graduate, saw firsthand what the process was like to start a team from scratch at the NCAA Division III level as a defensive coordinator at LaGrange.
Difficult days at Berry were inevitable. It started with a winless season and two wins the following year.
But Kunczewski and his staff stuck with their vision and, in five seasons, it led to Berry being a Southern Athletic Association champion and a Division III playoff participant.
The Vikings made the playoffs for the first time this season and defeating Huntingdon (Ala.), 34-20, in the first round, before losing to St. Thomas (Minn.), 29-13, in the second round.
“We're really proud of how this program has progressed through the years,” Kunczewski said. “We got to the playoffs for the first time, actually hosted a playoff game and won it, and then battled an elite Division III program in St. Thomas and played them to a two-score game.
“We realize we're not elite yet, but we have seen what the elite teams look like, and we know what it takes to get to that next level. It's given us a renewed sense of purpose heading out recruiting this year.”
After a standout playing career as a linebacker/safety at Grove City, Kunczewski had coaching stops at Allegheny and Bowdoin (Maine) before landing at LaGrange. He spent seven years at LaGrange and helped them reach the postseason in three years.
“It was invaluable because I got a front-row seat to see that if you want to do it right, it can't happen overnight,” Kunczewski said. “Seeing at LaGrange that it is a process really helped us as a program. You're not going to see instantaneous results.
“It personally helped my psyche to see that you're going to take your lumps early on, but if you stick to the plan and it's a good plan that good things are eventually going to happen.”
Berry has a good recruiting base and a great academic reputation. It is located an hour northwest of Atlanta. Several major southern cities are within 300 miles.
“Berry's one of the most unique campuses in the world,” Kunczewski said. “We have 27,000 acres, so it's one of the largest campuses. A lot of people might think it's tough to recruit at a place with high academic standards, but we talk about the exact opposite. We sell the fact that you're going to get challenged, and in four years, you're going to come away a better person and launch yourself into a great career from your experience in our classroom.
“We have a great administration support. They built us a brand new football stadium, and we have a good recruiting base. We have been able to hire a great staff and we not only get good football players, but we get good human beings in our program.”
Getting the recruits was the first part of the process. The next part was accepting it was going to take time. Berry went 0-9 its in inaugural season. An overtime win against LaGrange in Berry's first game at its on-campus stadium in Year 3 of Kunczewski's tenure started the upward trend.
“When we rolled out in 2013, we had 99 freshmen, and they were not ready for college football,” Kunczewski said. “Some of them were, but not all 99. We took our lumps that first year.
“The second year, we got better, but we still took our fair share of lumps. The turning point was Year 3 when we opened up a brand new stadium on campus. ... From the second week in 2014, our record is 27-4.”
Berry shared the conference title last year and won it this season with a 10-0 regular season.
Kunczewski has family, including his father, in Harrison City. He makes a yearly visit with his wife, daughter and two sons.
“My dad still lives there and keeps me in touch with Penn-Trafford,” Kunczewski said. “I played for John Yaccino in the mid-90s and, starting in the early '90s, a good football tradition started there. What has made me the coach I am today are my experiences at Penn-Trafford High School and Grove City. I'll hold a special place in my heart for the guys that I played with and the coaches that worked with us.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.