Editor’s Note: Above image: Thomas Orr drives up the floor playing for the Cru (Image provided by Orr)
BELTON, Texas- The way the banner is seen, what it means, lies in the eye of the beholder.
To fans walking into the Mayborn Campus Center for the first time, it is easy for it to get lost in the array of banners hanging from the rafters, commemorating a wide variety of years, teams and accomplishments in UMHB athletics history.
To men’s basketball recruits on tours, it is exhibit A, one of the first things the coaches show the young player and his entourage. It is a sign of what the program once was, and what it can and will be once again.
To the die-hard Cru fans, taking one look at it brings back memories of that special season, the 15th under former head coach Ken DeWeese.
But to Thomas Orr, it perhaps means the most of all. The banner that honors the UMHB men’s basketball team’s 2013 run to the national championship game is not something the current UMHB assistant just sees plastered on the wall on larger-than-life photos in the hall outside the locker room, nor is it a moment in UMHB history that he only knows about from watching the replays, and hearing the stories. He lived it, he led that historic run, he is the Crusader forever embedded in the great moments of that national title game, as he is pictured slamming down a two-handed dunk, mouth open, feet well off the floor.
But, he is quick to note, as special as it is that he can walk into the gym and see it up on the wall everyday, there is something missing. It reads “national runner-up”. The fact that his squad came up short against Amherst that season, provides him with the drive and the goal to one day help lead a team to the point where the banner reads, “National Champions”.
“Getting to the national championship, unfortunately losing, that’s what really lit the fire that burns every single day,” said Orr. “This school, this program deserves a national championship. I just want to be a part of that.”
The road to Belton began in a rather unique way for the Hutto, Texas native. A seldom-recruited guard coming out of Hutto high school, Orr opted to play at Panola Junior College, hoping that after two years there, he could latch on with a premier four-year college program.
He did not end up playing two seasons at Panola, but he did not go to UMHB following a 2009-10 season that saw him average 7.6 points per game. Instead he headed north to Sedalia, Missouri and State Fair Community College.
Once given the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities at the JUCO level, UMHB was one of the programs that came calling, and by the time the fall of 2011 rolled around, Orr was a Crusader.
Yet, the road to a starting role, to the national championship game, was not an easy one. Orr still remembers being at the end of the bench, coming to practice everyday just trying to find the motivation to compete. He did not know it then, but his journey throughout his career with Cru would provide him with the ability to relate to players in the same positions, and help them thrive.
“My story is a little different,” said Orr. “I transferred in as a junior. I’ve been through every position that you could possibly be in. Being the new guy, being at the end of the bench, coming to practice everyday just trying to find the motivation to play hard, and compete, all the way to my senior year, starting, leading the team in scoring, going all the way to the national championship.
“That helps me with recruiting, it helps me with coaching the guys we already have, because I’ve been in every shoe, so I can relate to those guys and tell them, from experience, how I handled it, and how they can do better and thrive.”
He found a way to thrive, pushing through the frustrations of rarely seeing the floor early on, and ended up playing in all 28 games as a junior. But it was that 2012-13 season in which Orr exploded onto the D3 hoops scene, averaging 15.1 points per game including a 34-point outburst in mid-March against Hardin-Simmons.
Behind Orr’s senior leadership and strong offensive presence, the Cru glided through the conference schedule, and were “shoo-ins” for the ASC tournament title. Only, the last part of that never happened. Concordia got the best of UMHB, but the Crusaders got sweet revenge just weeks later, when Concordia came to Belton to open up the NCAA Tournament. Thinking back, Orr said it is his favorite memory from his time playing in the Mayborn Campus Center.
“My favorite memory in this arena would probably have to be the national tournament game my senior year when we played Concordia at home about five days after we lost to them in the conference championship,” recalls Orr. “One, it was electric, because the gym was packed everywhere and obviously Concordia was a really good team. We came out and played really well and beat them by 25 (117-92).”
But of course, reaching the national title in March of that year remains at the top of his list of great memories at UMHB. After all, that group of Crusaders made history as the only division three team in the Lone Star State to have ever reached the national championship game.
“We’re actually the only D3 team in Texas to have made it to the national championship game,” said Orr. “Joking with the guys all the time, they try to throw out accolades all the time, like ‘Player of the Year’, but I’m like, ‘Until you get to the national championship game, my resume is always going to be better’.
Of course, that’s all in good fun. Despite what he accomplished and continues to accomplish in Belton, Orr is one of the most humble people you will meet, the kind of person who talks way more about the team than himself.
“That ride was crazy. And the thing about going through something special, like we’re doing right now, our guys don’t realize how special it is until it is over. During that run, we took the approach of, it’s just another game against another team that thinks they’re better than us. With that being said, I didn’t realize how special it was until it was all said and done. And reflecting back, I realized, ‘Wow, we did make history’. Unfortunately we didn’t win a national championship but that is going to be talked about until someone does win a national championship.
That begs the question then, who will make history and be the first D3 team from Texas to win it all? It is hard not to get ahead of yourself, especially when you look at the way the Cru has played this season. Behind a group of all-round talented players, many of whom transferred in before the season, UMHB has surged out to a 9-0 record in ASC play and does not appear to be slowing down one bit as the final four games of the season loom. The NCAA robbed UMHB and its fellow D3 programs of a chance to compete for a national title this season, so we will never know how the Cru stacks up against the nation, but Orr noted the ‘special talent’ on this year’s team that could lead to a national title run. Of course, that was three days before the NCAA pulled the plug on “D3 March Madness”.
“I think it is different,” said Orr when asked how the 2020-21 team compares to the 2012-13 team. “One, the style of play is different, so it is kind of hard to compare. But I do think we have some special talent on this team that we can truly be special and make that run. It is not far fetched to say that we could make it to the national championship. Things have to align, hopefully we keep getting, stay healthy, but if everything stays the course, it’s going to be hard for us to lose a game.
“I think Coach Carroll and the rest of the coaching staff have put together an amazing roster that can still get better,” continued Orr. “That’s the scary part about it. We’re so young and so inexperienced that these games right now are helping us gain that.”