Crusaders

KJ Miller (7) and No. 2 UMHB host No. 14 Trinity at noon Saturday at Crusader Stadium in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

BELTON — With a sparkling postseason pedigree that includes a 34-15 record and a national championship, Mary Hardin-Baylor lives for the playoffs. And with the memories of that 2018 title game now more than 1,000 days old, the Crusaders are eager to begin their quest for another trip to the Stagg Bowl.

“We have been waiting for this. It’s exciting to be in the playoffs and back into the regular routine of getting our guys ready to play,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg, whose team was eliminated in the quarterfinal round the last time the NCAA Division III playoffs were held in 2019, said Monday. “You have to rise to a different level of performance. If you don’t play well, you stack your thigh pads and put your equipment up.

“We know there’s a different level of play. There’s a different level of expectations. It’s really rewarding and exciting to be in the national championship playoffs.”

It’s been an even longer wait for Trinity. The Tigers will make their first postseason appearance since 2011 when No. 14 Trinity (9-0) visits No. 2 UMHB (10-0) for a first-round game at noon Saturday at Crusader Stadium.

However, the Tigers don’t believe their resurgence happened over night. They say the foundation was built during their playoff drought.

“This team is a product of several groups of leaders from previous years that established a mindset and culture unique to our school,” Jerheme Urban, a former Trinity player now in his eighth season as the Tigers head coach, said by telephone from his office Tuesday. “Guys have embraced that and led from the start all year. The leadership and commitment to take on difficult tasks is something this group has handled well.

“There were constant tweaks over the last few years because you don’t want to stay stagnant, but our core recruiting structure has stayed the same. It just took a while to rebuild the roster to the point it is at now.”

There’s certainly some history between the programs.

UMHB’s inaugural game in 1998 was a 37-14 loss at Trinity. The Crusaders fell to the Tigers again to open the 1999 season and in first-round playoff games in 2001 and ’02.

The turning point in the series came with UMHB’s 32-13 first-round victory in 2004 on the way to its first Stagg Bowl appearance. The Crusaders haven’t lost to the Tigers since, adding first-round wins in ’05 and ’07 and regular-season victories in 2012 and ’13 to lead the all-time series 5-4.

“I think this will be a great matchup of two teams from Texas that recruit against each other,” Fredenburg said. “We always expect to see a change in our guys when the playoffs arrive. All of us are going to be held to a higher standard. You have to rise to the occasion. The level of play and study has to intensify.”

The matchup

The teams’ statistics are similar. UMHB averages 492.5 yards and 54.8 points per game while yielding 207.2 yards and 8.5 points. Trinity churns out 457.8 yards and 47.3 points while giving up 187.4 yards and 10.6 points.

The Tigers offense is triggered by junior quarterback Tucker Horn, who has thrown for 2,283 yards and 33 touchdowns with only one interception and has five receivers with at least 20 catches each at his disposal.

“I think Jerheme Urban has done a great job. They’re very well-coached,” Fredenburg said of the Tigers. “They do a good job of executing their offense and defense and, obviously, there’s some talent there. It will be a challenge for us.”

UMHB is fresh off a 77-3 thrashing of McMurry in the regular-season finale last week, when the Crusaders limited the War Hawks to only 180 yards and senior quarterback Kyle King threw for three touchdowns after sitting out the previous two contests because of turf toe.

“I thought we probably played our best game on both sides of the ball last week, as far as executing our offense and defense,” Fredenburg said. “It’s a good place for us to be right now.”

The Crusaders and Tigers had one common opponent this season. Trinity beat Texas Lutheran 51-14 on Sept. 18, and UMHB defeated the Bulldogs 49-3 four weeks later.

Urban doesn’t lend much weight to either squad’s victory over TLU and expects the fans to see a well-played game Saturday afternoon.

“It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds. They are a program I have a tremendous amount of respect for. They will be the real deal,” he said. “It will come down to Football 101. You have to protect the ball, tackle well and play good special teams. We both have good players on the perimeter and good players on defense. I know my guys will play their best game to date.”

The roster

NCAA rules limit teams to 58 players in uniform for playoff games. UMHB suited up 58 guys last week in Abilene, but Brenton Martin — third on the team in catches and yards receiving — wasn’t one of them.

With Martin’s return this week, the Crusaders will have to trim a player from the game-day roster.

“We haven’t completely solidified the roster. We will talk about it because there are decisions to be made with the receiving corps and special teams and all the areas,” Fredenburg said. “There’s always issues with this every year, and there’s some discussions I need to have.”

Looking down the road

Saturday’s winner will host either No. 19 Birmingham-Southern (9-1) or Huntingdon (8-2) in the second round next week.

The other first-round games in this quarter of the 32-team bracket have No. 21 Redlands (8-1) visiting No. 6 Linfield (9-0), and No. 5 St. John’s (10-0) — the region’s top seed — hosting No. 22 Lake Forest (10-0).

Unless St. John’s gets upset in one of the first two rounds, the Johnnies will host the survivor between UMHB, Trinity, Birmingham-Southern and Huntingdon for a quarterfinal game Dec. 4 in Collegeville, Minn., which is about 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

“Home field matters a lot because you’re in front of your home crowd and have the comforts of home,” Fredenburg said. “The weather also factors in. Weather could become an issue down the road, if we keep winning.”