Above photo by CJ Halloran/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- UMHB head football coach Pete Fredenburg has no qualms about his team’s preparation. Not when the Stagg Bowl, D-III football’s national championship game, is set for Friday. Not when multiple players arrive at the team facility to review film before the sun has risen on a Monday morning, just over 24 hours after arriving home from its 24-7 semifinal win at Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“At 6:30 this morning, we had three defensive linemen come out here to watch film,” Fredenburg said at a news conference Monday. “That says a lot.”
That level of awareness and readiness is a trait evident within every facet of the program, who is preparing for its fourth Stagg Bowl appearance within the last five seasons on Friday. In 2019, the Crusaders’ season was ended by Wisconsin-Whitewater in the quarterfinal round, but last week, was UMHB who knocked the Warhawks out of championship contention in Whitewater, clinching a trip to Canton, Ohio and the D-III title game against top-ranked North Central College (Ill.).
“We’re so excited to be back,” Fredenburg said of returning to the Stagg Bowl. “The last time, in ‘19, that we played Whitewater, they beat us here, so we really went through some things that we had to tweak. We were able to overcome those and I think our football team really played outstanding on Saturday.”
Saturday’s semifinal contest was tied 0-0 after the opening quarter, but in a cold climate, UMHB found its rhythm before halftime, holding UW-Whitewater to 139 yards of total offense in the first half, en route to a 17-7 lead.
“That was really a great win for our team because you had to overcome the fact that we had never won there,” Fredenburg said. “Obviously the concern you have is, does doubt creep into your mind. Early that morning, the snow was going literally lateral in front of us, and sticking some. But then about noontime, the sky turned blue and we felt like we were back in Texas. It was an amazing turn of events.”
In Canton for Friday’s championship, the weather is predicted to be in the high 40s, with a 90 percent chance of rain. Regardless of the weather, however, UMHB is poised for a run at its third national title in program history, having most recently defeated Mount Union, then the reigning national champion, in 2018, by a score of 24-16. In 2021, the Crusaders have the opportunity to battle another reigning national champ in North Central, who earned the program’s first national title with a 41-14 victory over UW-Whitewater when the championship was last contested in 2019.
“It’s exciting to go to the Stagg Bowl, but it’s more important that you go with the confidence to win it,” Fredenburg noted. “That’s the most critical thing. You’re happy and you want to be excited that you’re there and enjoy every minute of this process. But the reality is that you’ve got to execute well, especially against a team like North Central.”
The Crusaders are led offensively by the quarterback-wide receiver duo of Kyle King and Brandon Jordan, who combined for 164 passing yards and two touchdowns in the win at UW-Whitewater. King has thrown for 2,246 yards in 11 games and ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency, while Jordan leads the team in receiving yards, with 971.
“He really has great athleticism,” Fredenburg said of Jordan. “[He has] great hand-eye coordination, catches the ball well, stays inbounds, and does the things necessary to win a one on one matchup.
“The thing that I also think is very helpful is Kyle puts the ball in a little window of opportunity for him. That’s the key to it. He throws it where the defensive back has a hard time getting to it.”
As Jordan has progressed throughout his first full season in Belton, opponents have begun to take notice. That includes North Central head coach Jeff Thorne, who was asked about Jordan and the matchup challenge he presents on Monday.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Thorne said. “He’s really talented. But you’ve got to be careful with that, because they’ve got a lot of other really talented players. Their running back is dynamic, their quarterback is dual-threat. They’ve got other guys on the outside that can really run.”
With it being a matchup of the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams, according to both the most recent American Football Coaches Association Top 25 Poll and D3football.com Top 25 Poll, Fredenburg has no doubt about the quality of the contest, nor the quality of the opponent.
“The first thing you see is how incredibly gifted they are talent-wise, and how quick, and fast, and hard they play,” Fredenburg said of North Central. “They swarm the ball on defense.”
Thorne expects a similar caliber of play from the Crusaders in Friday’s contest, which marks the first time the two programs have met.
“They remind us a lot of Wheaton College,” Thorne said, when asked if there was an opponent the Cardinal faced this season that is comparable to UMHB. “Defensively, they’re really good, [with an] unbelievable front seven. And the best secondary we’ve seen this year. They’re a very athletic, very talented team.”
When a program has the amount of postseason success that Mary Hardin-Baylor has enjoyed over the last decade, it goes deeper than purely the team on the field. It starts with the coaching staff, where Fredenburg has served as the head coach since the program’s inception in 1998. He is preparing to coach his fifth national title game on Friday.
“It’s so rewarding to watch young people grow and develop and mature,” Fredenburg said. “Having the opportunity to go to the Stagg Bowl and play against North Central inspires me. I love what I’m doing and I think that coaching is a calling.
“I don’t know why God chose me to be a coach, but I can look backwards and see how so many people impacted my life and focused me in this direction. It’s been great.”
After posting a perfect 15-0 record during the last national championship run in 2018, Fredenburg sees many of the immeasurable traits found on the past title team in this year’s squad, which has tallied 19 wins during the calendar year after a five-game spring season.
“This team has grown in stature and development in a way that is very similar to the ’18 team that had tremendous confidence in each other,” he said. “Our players are so eager and excited. They played such a great football team last week and played such a great game against them. Our guys are chomping at the bit.”
UMHB and North Central kick off at 6 p.m. CT in Canton, Ohio on Friday. The game can be seen on ESPNU and heard on 93.9 FM/1330 AM.
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.