Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- Tuesday’s season opener for the UMHB men’s basketball team is going to look a little different this year. And you will not want to be late.
In his second year at the helm of the program, UMHB head coach Clif Carroll has brought with him Toy Toss, a unique tradition that was started by his friend Josh Newman at Arkansas-Fort Smith. In partnering with the UMHB student-athlete advisory committee, fans are asked to bring stuffed animals to Tuesday evening’s home matchup with Southwestern. And after the Cru makes its first shot, the toys will come raining onto the court. Every toy thrown onto the court will be donated to the McLane Children’s Hospital in Waco. The matchup has also been named “Christmas in November” with Carroll coaching the entire game in a Santa Claus costume.
“I think it’s the coolest thing ever,” Carroll said of the toy toss tradition. “You’re trying to get toys donated for sick kids. There’s not a better cause than sick kids. I always told myself, ‘If I ever get to a spot where we can do this thing, I want to try to do it.’
“The SAAC committee wanted to do this toy drive for McLane Children’s Hospital and they actually did donate a bunch of toys last year. So this was my opportunity to say, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’ll be fun, I’ll be dressed up as Santa Claus, which is wild in itself. At the end of the day, we need those toys to donate to the kids. Come out there and throw them as hard as you can at me. Once we make our first basket, they come raining out of the heavens.”
The last time Carroll participated in the tradition, when his Sul Ross State Lobos played at UTPB, 4,500 toys were collected. Achieving that kind of excitement from the fan base is something he hopes to bring to Belton.
“It’s for a great cause, it’s a lot of fun, it’s a memory for our guys and hopefully will become a great tradition here,” Carroll added. “Something that our students, not just our players, really enjoy and get into. This will be the first one we do. It won’t be the last.”
The toy toss won’t be the only reason you’ll want to arrive early. This year’s roster features incredible depth, with 11 returners and eight transfers. After going 13-0 in ASC play last season, the expectations are high for this season.
“We have big expectations around here,” Carroll noted. “We don’t hold anything back. We want to win a national championship. The enthusiasm is high.”
Of those 11 returners is leading scorer Josiah Johnson, who ranked third in D-III last season in points per game (29.3) and was named the ASC’s Male Athlete of the Year. Entering last season, few knew his name. Heading into this year, he has already been named to the ASC Preseason Watch List and D3hoops.com First-Team All-America selection. But that has not changed the way Johnson approaches the game, Carroll said.
“Last year, we had to have him score 30 to win. If he didn’t get 30, we were probably going to be in trouble. This year, with the added depth, we’re just better. There’s still going to be nights when we need him to go get 40, but we’re not going to rely on that.
“The great thing about guys like Josiah and Ty [Prince] is they’re such team-first guys. They were last year. That’s why it all works.”
In addition to Prince and Johnson, as well as some of the other key returners, such as Carson Hammond, the team’s new transfers are anticipated to have an impact of their own this season. Forward Nathan Stolz repeatedly stood out as a playmaker over the first three weeks of practice, as he comes from John Brown Univ., and Payton Brooks is a talented guard from Abilene Christian.
“You look at the makeup of teams that win national championships at every level, and even at the D-I level, with all the ‘one and dones’, national championships are won with juniors and seniors. I truly believe that. I felt like the overall maturity of our team was lacking last year and we had great kids who played hard, but just weren’t very mature at times.
“Adding guys like Nathan Stolz, Payton, Fred Shields, Luke Feely, who have experience and can see things, it helps a lot.”
UMHB battles Southwestern on Tuesday night, facing a familiar opponent. The Pirates and Crusaders have played on 12 occasions since 2009, with UMHB winning 11 of those. The programs most recently played on Nov. 21, 2019, in Georgetown, with the Cru winning 75-69. It will be the first time Carroll has coached against Southwestern.
The Pirates went 4-3 in a Covid-abbreviated season last year, and fell to Howard Payne 79-70 to open the 2021-22 season on Saturday.
Tip off is set for 7 p.m. CT, and the contest can be seen live on cruathletics.com.