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“This is nothing unusual”: the fight for the ASC Football championship is between Hardin-Simmons and UMHB once again

Above image: UMHB football defeated Hardin-Simmons 15-14 in the last meeting between the rivals in 2019. Photo provided by the UMHB Athletics Department

BELTON, Texas- The buzz is heard on campus. The vibrations seem to echo across the practice field. The Crusader community is pumped.

There seems to be something that separates UMHB football’s annual meeting with Hardin-Simmons from all the rest of the games on the schedule, as it has often been the Cru and Cowboys battling it out atop the conference standings for the ASC title year in and year out.

Even an spring season abbreviated to just five games after Covid-19 wiped out the fall slate could not keep the rivalry from taking place on the gridiron, as the two bitter foes are set to battle in this Saturday’s ASC Championship game. HSU will host the game in Abilene at 1 p.m. CT.

“It usually comes down to the ‘championship game’ between us and Hardin-Simmons,” said UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg, as the two opponents’ regular season meetings have turned into mock championship games in recent years. “So this is nothing unusual. Obviously, there is a big time, boost in effort and energy every time you play Hardin-Simmons and I’m sure it is the same for them.”

This heated rivalry has quickly been recognized as one of the best in division three football, but its origins are relatively unknown.

UMHB football kicked off its inaugural season in 1999, but a year prior, Fredenburg took over the job, and used the 1998 season to recruit his future team and brush up on his knowledge of division three football. That is when he came in contact with Hardin-Simmons head coach Jimmy Keeling.

“The first thing when I got here in 1998, I wanted to know about division three and how it was organized, and how people handled the different scenarios,” recalled Fredenburg on Monday. “I went up to Hardin-Simmons and visited with Jimmie Keeling and his staff, so we’ve had tremendous respect for each other through the years. It’s been a great opportunity to bring out the best in both teams whenever we play. It all started with just a great deal of respect for their program and I think they now have respect for ours.”

The ‘respect’ Fredenburg had for HSU was likely due to the Cowboys’ long-standing history of success on the gridiron, not just at the D3 level, but for several years as a program that competed with the best of the best in the southwest.

Few people know, but HSU was once very well-known on the national college football scene, having begun its program in 1897, 102 years before UMHB began theirs. At that time, there were no “divisions” in the NCAA, so all schools currently classified as D1, D2, or D3, were simply “NCAA-Affiliated”, meaning HSU went toe-to-toe with current division one heavyweights on a regular basis. In fact, under famed Texas college coach Frank Kimbrough, the Cowboys went undefeated in the 1940 season, and finished the year ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press Poll. From 1935-1958, the program competed in nine bowls, and posted a respectable 5-2-2 record in the games. The coach in the Cowboys’ final bowl appearance in ’58 was famed TCU All-American and NFL Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh.

But what followed can only be described as a fall from grace for the well-known west Texas school. From 1960-1963, the program went a miserable 3-35-1, leading to the elimination of the program in January of 1964.

26 years elapsed before football was reinstated, and Keeling was the program’s new head coach. HSU again reached a notable status, this time at the division three level, as Keeling led the Cowboys to 11 ASC titles before retiring in 2010. Jesse Burleson took over the program and has kept it moving in the right direction.

Just nine years after HSU football began again, UMHB football kicked off for the first time, and soon after, a rivalry was developed. It goes without saying that there is always a different feeling in the fieldhouse when HSU is the Cru’s next opponent.

“With the rivalry that we have it just continues to bubble up,” said Fredenburg. “There’s always some emails and texts and all the stuff on social media, there’s just some rivalry between the two schools. I try to stay out out of all of it, but I know that our kids will play hard.”

UMHB has multiple newcomers seeing the field often who have never experienced what this rivalry is like. But Fredenburg did not appear to concerned about that group grasping the importance of this upcoming game, as it is something well-talked about around the program leading up to gameday.

“I think that if they don’t, they got a glimpse of it,” said Fredenburg. “Our JV played [HSU’s] JV twice this season. We beat them at their place then they came here and beat us. I think the reaction to them beating us here, certainly everybody who has witnessed that understands the rivalry and how much energy there will be between the two teams.”

Kyle King is expected to start at quarterback for UMHB on Saturday after going 12/21 passing with four passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in the first start of his collegiate career against Louisiana College.

“The last few times Kyle has come in, he’s managed to move the ball,” said Fredenburg. “He has a presence that leads the team, not that Tommy doesn’t, or didn’t, but we were disappointed in some of Tommy’s decisions that he made on the field and Kyle moved the ball a little better. In the East Texas Baptist game, when we had the drive to go down and kick the field goal to win the ballgame, Kyle kind of proved himself.”

One likely absence in the lineup will be kicker Anthony Avila, who pulled his groin muscle on last Saturday’s opening 40-yard kickoff. Avila did not play the remainder of the game and wore street clothes for the second half. Avila’s name rings a bell for the majority of UMHB fans who witnessed the Troy, Texas native knock a field goal through the uprights to beat HSU 15-14 in 2019, which was the last time the two opponents met.

“No actually he kicked off the first kickoff and pulled a groin muscle,” said Fredenburg. “I don’t know if he’s going to be well or not. We’re going to have to do a doctor’s appointment and possibly an MRI. We don’t know if he’ll be able to kick or not.”

In Avila’s absence, Brandon Cunningham stepped up, and will do the same if needed on Saturday. Though he had just one field goal attempt, making a 33-yarder, he displayed excellent range during the second half warmups, and will be a consistent force on special teams for the Cru.

With everything that plays into this rivalry week, including the fact that the ASC title is on the line, Fredenburg is more than confident in what his squad brings to the table, and the fact that it can handle the situations when the lights shine brightest.

Said Fredenburg: “I think it goes without saying and the thing that we always fall back on, is that people that come from high school and grow in our program understand the significance of big ballgames, because we play in a lot of them.”

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