BELTON — The NCAA Division III playoffs have arrived, so it’s time to ratchet up the pressure and play for keeps. Nobody knows that better than Mary Hardin-Baylor, which is busy preparing for its 16th postseason game in a span of four years.
“There’s a huge difference once you get in the playoffs. If you don’t play well, you start stacking your thigh pads,” Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said Monday. “In order to keep playing, we have to play at a higher level than we’ve played all year.”
The 57th postseason game in UMHB’s history will be a matchup between the top-ranked Crusaders (10-0) and No. 22 Redlands (9-1) at noon Saturday at Crusader Stadium, with the winner earning a second-round date with No. 19 Berry (9-1) or Huntingdon (7-3).
UMHB and No. 2 Mount Union are the only programs in the country to advance to the second round each of the last 15 years.
“Everybody’s energy level rises,” Fredenburg said. “You have to be more focused, and you have to be more crisp in everything you do. If you don’t play well, you go home.”
The Crusaders are 41-15 all-time in the postseason and advanced to the national championship game each of the last three years — a run capped by their 24-16 victory over Mount Union in last year’s Stagg Bowl in Shenandoah.
“It’s so much fun to be in this position,” Fredenburg said. “When they released the playoff bracket (Sunday) and showed highlights of us at Shenandoah, I just had a flood of emotion. It was such a wonderful experience, an experience you’ll remember the rest of your life. It really makes you want to go back.
“There’s no doubt. Our goal is to go to Shenandoah and win that ballgame. But first, we have to make sure we play well enough to keep giving ourselves another ballgame.”
Fredenburg took stock of his team’s improvement throughout the season and said he’s pleased with where it is now, noting the progression of junior tight end Gary Ruckman and junior defensive end E’Monte Smith as examples.
“I think we’re at a good place right now,” he said. “Our offense is doing some good things, and our defense is playing well. We just have to keep moving along.
“We have some guys who have really progressed. Gary Ruckman went from being a guy we didn’t know much about to being one of the best tight ends in the nation, if not the best. E’Monte Smith is another guy. It was critical that he step up this year and holy cow, he’s really been incredible.”
UMHB vs. Redlands VI
Saturday will mark the sixth meeting between the Crusaders and Bulldogs, and UMHB won the previous five — two regular-season matchups and three first-round playoff games. Here’s a look back at the postseason meetings, all of which were in Belton.
2011 — UMHB built a 34-0 lead through three quarters before Redlands scored twice in the fourth for a 34-13 final. LiDarral Bailey ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns, and he had a TD pass for the Crusaders. The Bulldogs totaled 360 yards (only 81 in the first half) but were intercepted three times.
2013 — After holding just a 14-0 halftime lead, UMHB scored three touchdowns in the third quarter on the way to a 35-7 win. Eric Allen returned a punt 90 yards for a TD for the Crusaders, who rushed for 304 of their 373 total yards.
2016 — Redlands capitalized on two UMHB turnovers to stake a 21-14 halftime lead, before the Crusaders erupted in the second half of a 50-28 victory. Blake Jackson threw for 239 yards and three TDS to go with 154 yards rushing and a score for UMHB, which got 186 yards rushing and three TDs from Markeith Miller. The Bulldogs finished with only 184 total yards.
UMHB’s Mikkah Hackett was named American Southwest Conference defensive player of the week for his performance in the Crusaders’ 77-14 victory over Sul Ross State.
The junior linebacker had seven tackles and returned interceptions 29 and 75 yards for touchdowns, becoming the first UMHB player to return two picks for TDs in a game since Javicz Jones did it against East Texas Baptist in 2012.