Editor’s Note: Above Image provided by the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- It has been a question asked of nearly every coach and athlete this year, regardless of the sport, level of competition or schedule set to be played. “Will this season be any different”?
Well of course it will. UMHB head football coach Pete Fredenburg, along with several players have already attested to that, considering it will be the first time UMHB football embarks on a spring schedule, the fact that no UMHB football games were played in 2020, and the unknowns surrounding the upcoming five-game slate. However, as much as this season has varied from past campaigns, nothing has changed when it comes to what the Cru are striving for. There’s still the ASC Championship streak on the line. UMHB has claimed at least a share of the conference title in every season for the past 16 seasons, though the 2016 and 2017 titles were vacated.
“We’ve got five games to go win a conference championship,” said starting quarterback Tommy Bowden.
“Our plan is to try to win this thing,” said Fredenburg in reference to the program’s goals to win the ASC title. “As we develop and win it, we are obviously always in the back of our minds thinking about next fall.”
“It is still a huge focus,” said offensive lineman Steven Sellers when asked about the ASC Championship streak. “At UMHB, we’re not thinking of losing any game. We have the streak going and we’re looking to continue that. No matter what situation we’re presented with, we’re going to go out there and win and compete.”
The Cru certainly has the personnel to extend the ASC Championship streak to 17. While there is youth on the offense, particularly at quarterback where Bowden will have big shoes to fill as a starter, that youth is talented and used the fall to their advantage, getting in extra reps.
“It was super helpful,” said Bowden of having the fall to prepare as a starter. “Last year I took some reps with the varsity and played on the varsity but didn’t get a whole lot of reps in practice and running the offense. So this fall, I had eight weeks being able to run the offense and get adjusted and learn the defenses.”
As he said himself, Bowden made great strides over the course of the fall, demonstrating his dual-threat ability as a runner and a passer. The fleet-footed Brownwood, Texas, native is a different kind of quarterback in comparison to Jase Hammack or Luke Poorman, who stared for the Cru last year.
“I think I just have to get the ball to our playmakers,” said Bowden. “I think I bring a running ability that will help us a little bit and my throwing is getting better everyday.
There is a similar situation when it comes to running back, though Montana Miller, the younger brother of UMHB all-time leading rusher, Markeith, looked strong in the early spring practices as well as at the fall scrimmages. He runs downhill, with strength to pick up several yards after contact. Kilgore Junior College transfer Melek Hamilton also ran the ball well, and is listed as the No. 1 back heading into the season opener. Currently, just four running backs are listed on the varsity roster.
“Montana is back and he’s well,” said Fredenburg, who also noted Miller’s play after one of the fall scrimmages. We had a recruit that came in from Kilgore JC named Melek Hamilton, who is really outstanding. We had to moved one of the running backs over to linebacker. It is different this spring because of the time from after the fall, you start out with a whole big group of guys, then for one reason or another, some of them choose to not play, or go elsewhere. But we’ve got a good nucleus of guys and we’re excited about the running backs that we have.”
The true strength of the UMHB offense will be in the wide receivers unit, where there is so much depth it is hard to project who will be starting on Saturday. Brenton Martin is a name most fans will remember as, the senior pulled in 32 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns in 2019, and looks to be one of the centerpieces of this offense. Another returner is KJ Miller, who sat out the 2019 season, but was named Second Team All-ASC in 2018.
While those two might be the most well-known right now to the UMHB fan base, several transfers have proven they deserve a starting spot after phenomenal performances in the fall. One of those is graduate transfer Caleb Eagans, who has the most experience of anyone in this unit, having played at three different schools, including Texas A&M. An NFL prospect, the 5’9, 175 lb receiver will be lining up in the slot, as the coaching staff looks to use his speed on misdirection plays, crossing routes, and whole lot more. One player we have not seen a lot of, but has remarkable route-running ability is Romello Cook, a transfer by way of Cabrillo College. Brandon Jordan will probably be Bowden’s go-to in the red zone, as Jordan’s 6’6 frame helped him catch more than a few passes in double coverage this fall.
“We really are excited about our wide receivers,” said Fredenburg. “The one that sticks out in my mind right now is KJ Miller. He’s back and he’s going to be so involved in our offense, not only as a receiver but he’ll handle the ball. We’d like to get the ball in his hands as many times as we can.”
Headlining the defense is the always-reliable Jefferson Fritz, the senior defensive back who is well-known in the program as one of its most vocal leaders and captains. He currently holds the ASC record for interceptions in a career with 19, and still counting. A hard-hitting defender who has the speed to drop back in coverage, and the agility to put pressure on the quarterback, Fritz is a do-it-all player with high expectations for himself entering this spring.
“This season is a little different, playing the five games, but the expectations haven’t changed for the team, or myself,” said Fritz.
Fredenburg was impressed by both Fritz and his fellow team captains/leaders throughout this fall and heading into this spring for the way they have led the team, both on and off field, as the program tries to navigate through all the protocols and precautions.
“[I’m] so impressed with them all,” said Fredenburg. “We do some things typically that kind of brings out the leadership abilities of guys in stressful situations and obviously being in a stressful situation and dealing with COVID, leadership is foremost in our minds that comes guys have to sacrifice, they have to give of themselves a little bit to stay safe and do things to practice safety issues. So it’s incredible to watch guys like Jefferson Fritz, Gary Ruckman, Tommy Bowden, Steve Sellers and those guys come to the forefront, and not only demand of themselves staying safe and doing the necessary things, but to make sure that all the people around the same.”
Nobody can leave out the special teams units, either. Who can forget Anthony Avila’s game-winning field as time expired in the last meeting between the Cru and Hardin-Simmons? The spring season will be slightly different for kickers like Avila, as he noted that the ball will be harder, though it should not effect his accuracy.
“The only thing that I would say that kicking in the spring is different than kicking in the fall would be the temperature,” said Avila. “The ball is going to be a little harder, I’ll have to swing a little better, but I’ve been working all summer, all through the fall. I just want to be the best, I want to compete out there.”
The slate, spanning a mere five games, features a road contest on Feb. 6 against Belhaven to kick off the season. That is followed by a bye week before the Cru host Louisiana College, in its last year playing in the ASC, at Crusader Stadium on Feb. 20. The homestand continues the following Saturday with Southwestern traveling a short way up IH-35 for the contest on Feb. 27 in Belton. To cap it all off, the Cru travel to East Texas Baptist on March 6, closing out the regular season schedule. The following Saturday will feature a conference championship game, with the No. 1 team in the East division standings traveling to the No. 1 team in the West Division. Unlike in other sports, UMHB was placed in the East division, while Hardin-Simmons was placed in West. The way things are shaping up, it is looking like the Cru’s hopes for a conference title will be decided in Abilene on March 13. Only time will tell. One could only hope.
With the spring schedule comes the realization that UMHB will be one of the only programs in central Texas playing, meaning more attention will likely be directed towards the team.
“I feel like we will have tons of eyes on us, because, who doesn’t want to watch football all the time?,” said the soft-spoken Avila. “I feel like we’re going to be the highlight of the community, and everyone around us, and prove how D3 football really is and the how tough the competition is, so I’m excited.”