BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor has been down this road before. For the fifth time in the last 13 years, Wisconsin-Whitewater stands squarely in the Crusaders’ path to the national championship game.
So the fact that No. 1 UMHB (12-0) and No. 10 UW-Whitewater (11-1) square off at noon Saturday at Crusader Stadium in a quarterfinal of the NCAA Division III playoffs is no surprise to Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg.
“You would like to experience playing new people. But in the playoffs, people always know they’re going to have to go through Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater and St. John’s and Wheaton and Mary Hardin-Baylor,” Fredenburg said Monday.
“It’s something special for all our players and coaches to get to enjoy this opportunity. There’s thousands of people who would love to have the opportunity to be in this situation that we’re in. I want our guys to grab hold of every minute and do everything they can to prepare themselves for the job at hand.”
Indeed there is familiarity in the Division III playoffs. This marks the 16th consecutive year that UMHB’s playoff trek has included a matchup with either UW-Whitewater, Mount Union, Linfield or Wesley.
With the exception of a victory over Mount Union in the programs’ very first meeting, the Crusaders took their lumps initially against the other powers. Last season’s semifinal win over UW-Whitewater was UMHB’s first defeat of the Warhawks in six tries.
“Our program has gone through a series of these instances,” Fredenburg said. “When we first started, we had a hard time beating Hardin-Simmons. We overcame that. Then we had a hard time beating Trinity. We overcame that. We had a hard time beating Linfield, then we beat them. We had a hard time beating Whitewater, then we beat them last year. We’ve continued to plug along and tried to get a little better every year.”
After finally getting the UW-Whitewater monkey off its back last season, UMHB advanced to the national championship game for the third straight year and won it for a second time.
The Crusaders’ first semifinal home game against the Warhawks was in 2008, the year after UW-Whitewater won the first of its six national titles. This time around, it’s UMHB that’s trying to defend a championship.
“This time of year, you really don’t stop and think, ‘We’re the defending champions.’ You just get ready for the next opponent,” Fredenburg said. “Every week it intensifies. This group has set its goal to get back to the national championship game.
“This isn’t like just another week. We’ve had a hard time beating Whitewater. We were able to last year, so we know the task at hand and the challenge it presents. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
A look back
Saturday’s game will be the seventh meeting between the Crusaders and Warhawks. UW-Whitewater posted regular-season wins of 7-3 in 2006 and 41-14 in 2007 before the programs met four times in the postseason.
Here’s a recap of those playoff games.
2007 semifinal — On a frozen field in Wisconsin, where the temperature barely reached double digits, UMHB trailed 13-7 in the second half when it had first-and-goal at the Warhawks 2-yard line but didn’t come away with any points. UW-Whitewater tacked on a late field goal in its 16-7 victory.
2008 semifinal — The Warhawks scored a touchdown just before halftime to take the lead and never trailed again in a 39-13 win on a windy afternoon in Belton that is remembered most for the second-half kickoff. UMHB’s kick into the strong gusts went almost straight up in the air, and the officials ruled that it didn’t go the necessary 10 yards. UW-Whitewater cashed in on the short field and never looked back.
2013 semifinal — The Crusaders were down 16-12 with 3½ minutes remaining when a UMHB receiver dropped a pass in the end zone. The Crusaders settled for a field goal and didn’t get the ball back until only 1 second remained in the Warhawks’ 16-15 victory.
2018 semifinal — UMHB never trailed, using a 17-point second quarter to build a lead and pulling away in the fourth for a 31-14 win. The Crusaders got 168 yards rushing from Markeith Miller, a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown from Aaron Sims, and forced the Warhawks into four turnovers.
UMHB junior tight end Gary Ruckman injured an ankle in the first half of last week’s 42-6 second-round win over Huntingdon and did not return.
He was scheduled for X-rays on Monday afternoon, and his status for Saturday’s game has not been decided. Ruckman is the Crusaders’ most productive tight end this season with 12 catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns.
“We’re not sure about him yet. He’s walking around tenderly,” Fredenburg said. “He has promised he is going to play, for whatever that’s worth.”