Matt Berry got about one week to polish his skills before he was thrust under center leading the University of Nebraska-Kearney offense.
The former McCook High School quarterback is a junior on the UNK football team. Berry, listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, spent the first half of this past season starting at wide receiver for the Lopers. But a rash of injuries at the quarterback position forced UNK coaches to ask Berry to make the move.
The second half was a different story, as the visiting Tigers rallied with 20 unanswered points to claim a 30-23 victory.
"There were some holes that opened up," Berry said of his first-half success. "(Fort Hays) made some changes in the second half. They widened their (defensive) ends, so that made it harder for us to get outside. They made a good change there. They were spying up the middle, so when we ran up the middle, they had two guys, three guys there."
BERRY LED the UNK rushing attack last Saturday with 145 yards on 16 carries and the two early touchdowns. Berry also completed 14 of 25 passes for 86 yards and one big interception.
After a 27-yard punt return by Tommy Flanagan, Kearney took possession at the Fort Hays 42-yard line with just over a minute remaining and trailing by a touchdown. With a strong wind at his back, Berry's second-down pass was intercepted by Paul Kedron of Fort Hays to end the UNK hopes. Probably a pick Matt won't forget for awhile.
"After the game's over, you look back and be like, 'Oh, I wish I would have made this play, that play,' but it didn't happen. The ball just kind of floated on me and got inside," he said. "I should have stayed on top of it and threw more of a dart. But I didn't and it got picked off. So I guess we'll have to start working now for next season.
"The seniors put in a lot of good work. They showed us a lot of what we have to do for next year."
BERRY'S STARTING quarterback debut came in the fifth game of the season against a tough foe in Northwest Missouri State. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 163 yards, and also led the Lopers with 110 rushing yards on 21 carries. Unfortunately, UNK suffered a fifth consecutive loss in a 37-13 decision.
Kearney went 3-8 overall and 2-8 in their first season competing in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA).
Berry also played quarterback briefly in UNK's fourth game at Missouri Western.
After an 0-7 start, the Lopers rallied with three straight wins late in the season before watching Fort Hays rally to snap that win streak last Saturday.
FOR THE SEASON, the former Bison star saw quarterback duty in eight games. The left-handed Berry completed 54 of 96 passes (56.2 percent) for 445 yards with 1 touchdown and 3interceptions. Berry finished the year as the second-leading rusher for UNK, with a net of 511 yards on 94 carries, an average of 5.4 yards per attempt, with 6 touchdowns. Berry also caught 9 passes for 57 yards as a starting wide receiver early in the year.
THE 2009 McCOOK High School graduate is stranger to the quarterback position. He led the Bison to the 2007 Class B state championship finals, where McCook lost a 14-7 overtime decision to Crete.
As a senior, Berry led McCook to a pair of playoff wins, then the Bison lost to Aurora 37-33 in the semifinals. Berry was an all-state player on defense, and he ran for 28 touchdowns and threw for over 1,000 yards in his senior year at McCook. According to the UNK athletic department Web site: www.lopers.com, Berry set several McCook football records, including scoring in a career (390), season scoring (210), career touchdowns (65), touchdowns in a single season (35 in 2008) and single-season total offense (2,553 yards in 2008).
Berry faced a tough situation moving to quarterback with limited practice time this season.
"Yes, it was. I haven't really thrown the ball consistently every day since I was a senior in high school. That's kind of hurt me a lot," he said. "Going into the off-season, I'll definitely work on that if I stay at quarterback, then I'll be good to go there. But if they move me back out to receiver, I'll just go right back out there and pick it up like I was always there.
"It was definitely hard not throwing the ball for that long and then just coming in. The team did a really good job rallying around me and giving me a lot of support."
BERRY AND HIS McCook teammates didn't lose many games during his varsity career -- three to be exact. The Bison had three straight undefeated regular seasons in 2006, 2007 and Matt's senior year in 2008. McCook lost in the playoff semifinals in 2006 and 2008 to finish 11-1 both years. The Bison reached the championship finals in 2007 to finish 12-1.
"It was tough," Berry said of UNK's tough 3-8 season. "You've just got to roll with the punches and we just have to go next year and work harder and just see what happens next year."
SPEAKING OF next year, Berry said he would welcome another shot to play quarterback for the Lopers in his final college football season. But he will go where the UNK coaches want him.
"It's up to the coaches. Whatever they want me to do, I'm going to be up for it," Berry said. "If they want me to play quarterback, that just means I'm going to have to work extra hard with my passing over the winter and (spring ball) and the summer, and then just see what happens next year. So it's definitely up to them, but I'm willing to play quarterback. If they don't want me there, that's fine, then I'll go to receiver and play that. It's up to them and we'll see what happens."