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Tigers on top! Unbeaten Benedict football team wins first conference championship

Benedict football made even more history on Saturday. The Tigers (11-0) won their first Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship by defeating Tuskegee 58-21 at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium. The conference title adds to an already historic season for Benedict, which finished the regular season 10-0 for the first time in school history. The Tigers were ranked ninth in the latest American Football Coaches Division II poll and entered Saturday’s game No. 1 in the Super Region 2 regional rankings, which determined the Division II playoff teams.

Benedict should have a first-round bye in the playoffs when the pairings are announced on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. If the Tigers get next weekend off, their first playoff game will be at home on Nov. 26. “We are building something special here,” coach Chennis Berry said. “I think we have all the things to be successful here. We are in a great place, great academic staff, great culture. The whole entire campus has bought into Benedict College football. … We are just happy to deliver the first SIAC championship to Benedict College.”

The championship comes in Berry’s third season but just his second on the field, as the COVID pandemic wiped out the first year. Berry was an assistant coach for 26 years until he was hired at Benedict in February 2020. The team is just four years removed from a 1-9 season, but those memories are long gone. Berry and his players talked about a new era of Benedict football during Saturday’s postgame press conference. The title came against Tuskegee, the winningest program in the SIAC, which was looking for its 30th conference title.

Berry and his players were relishing the moment Saturday. The celebration began between the third and fourth quarters with Benedict players and coaches dancing as the band played. The good times continued as the clock ticked down and Benedict players doused Berry with a Gatorade bath. The Tigers coach then put his hands in the air to rejoice. Players ran across the field, dancing and having fun while wearing their SIAC champs T-shirts. Some still lingering 90 minutes after the game.

“We came so far in a short period of time and we are here,” Berry said. “… I’m proud of all our coaches, young men for their hard work, and our support staff administration.”

Benedict College head football coach Chennis Berry looks at the SIAC championship trophy after defeating Tuskegee on Saturday, November 12, 2022. Joshua Boucher

Quarterback Eric Phoenix, one of the holdovers from the 1-9 team, turned in another top performance. Phoenix was 19-of-29 passing for 313 yards, two touchdowns and ran for 91 yards and a score.

“We knew this day was coming,” Phoenix said. “It just feels good. To build a program up from the bottom to the top is special. All the hard work really paid off.” Ten different Benedict players caught passes in the game. Zaire Scotland rushed for a pair of scores and was the team’s leading receiver with three catches for 55 yards. The Tigers gained 573 yards and the 58 points tied a season-high against Elizabeth City in the opener on Sept. 3 and second-most in school history when they scored 65 points in a game in 1960. Benedict scored on its first four offensive possessions, and Reginald Harden returned a fumble for a 25-yard touchdown to put the Tigers up 28-7 two minutes into the second quarter. The Tigers added two more touchdowns in the quarter, the second on Eric Phoenix’s 14-yard pass to Tayven Grice, who did a backflip on the sidelines after the TD. Loobert Denelus led the Benedict defense with three sacks.

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