Above photo by CJ Halloran/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- After having played, and won, 20 games in the calendar year, UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg and his team had reason to be tired as they unloaded the bus in Belton on Saturday afternoon. But the opposite was the case. Nothing but joy was present on the faces of the team as the Stagg Bowl trophy was carried through a crowd of UMHB fans, who were donning the purple and gold, ready to welcome the 2021 D-III national champions back to their home city.
“Our goal has been 20 [wins] in ‘21,” Fredenburg told the crowd. “So we won five early and 15 this fall. 20 in ‘21…that’s awesome.”
Not only did the Crusaders accomplish their goal in Friday’s national championship victory, but did it in dominating fashion, defeating No. 1 North Central, 57-24. In Monday’s final D3football.com and American Football Coaches Association rankings, UMHB was listed as the nation’s top team, the first time since September that the Cru was ranked No. 1.
Adding to the memories of the win, which marked UMHB’s second national title in the last three years, was the fact that the contest was played in the shadows of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“The NFL stadium was such a surreal atmosphere,” quarterback Kyle King, who threw for a program record 436 yards, said Saturday. “Under the lights was even better. It was something special for sure.”
For King, it was another milestone in his collegiate career, and he will be back in 2022. But for a number of the team’s other standouts, especially defensively, Friday’s win was the last chance to represent the Cru on the field. That includes D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year Jefferson Fritz and linebacker Mikkah Hackett, who was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.
“You have to start with Fritz,” Fredenburg said when asked about the senior class. “He’s such a dynamic leader and player. Others have grown, and I think a lot because Fritz was the kind of guy that held everything together. Then all of a sudden Kyle King; what an incredible game he played last night. This team grew throughout the year.”
The turning point of the season, Fredenburg believes, did not come late in the playoffs, but rather in a September showdown with conference rival Hardin-Simmons. Throughout the 20 games played in 2021, that 34-28 victory remained the closest contest for the Cru throughout the year, and the only time UMHB trailed by 21 points at the half.
“The pinnacle of [the growth of this team] was the game against Hardin-Simmons,” Fredenburg said. “Going in at halftime, down by 21 points, and essentially having to decide what we want to do with our team. They decided they wanted to be special, and it turned out that they were.”
Individually, for King, 2021 was a year to remember in his collegiate career. He entered the spring season as the backup at quarterback, before taking over as the starter for the final two games, and held that position throughout the course of the fall. The Milano, Texas native broke the single-game records for passing touchdowns (6), and passing yards (436), and set a new record for passing efficiency (197.18) in a season.
“My leadership skills grew every week,” King said. “I still have some growing to do in that department. As far as football goes, I was pretty pleased with how my year went. I’m ready to get back to work in the spring and summer, and come back better next year.”
King was at the core of an offense that improved dramatically from week-to-week, and even throughout the five weeks of the playoffs.
“I would have to say the maturation of our offense,” Fredenburg said when asked about an area where he saw tremendous growth on his team. “Being able to read and see what the defense is doing, and to capitalize on that. To have the receiving corps available so that if Kyle sees somebody filling to stop the run, he can throw it over their heads. We have phenomenal athletes.
“Kyle was great last night. I mean, he was an All-American player last night.”
The development that led to the Stagg Bowl victory began a number of weeks ago, according to Fredenburg. One of the most impressive parts of the playoff run was that the team’s leaders played perhaps their best football come playoff-time, such as Hackett, who tallied three interceptions over the Cru’s last two victories.
“The great thing was that it started developing as we got into the playoffs,” Fredenburg said. “You saw the growth of the football team and obviously that was the culmination of a great season.”
The Crusaders will not wait long to turn the page on 2022, and begin preparing for another “great season” next fall. Spring practice begins on Jan. 8.
“We’ll come back on January 8th and start,” King said. “But until then, we’re going to enjoy it now.”