Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- There was a point in Tuesday’s duel with No. 16 Trinity that Mike Stawski sensed something special was taking place in his dugout.
In the past, the Crusaders had entered the two annual non-conference matchups with the Tigers hoping they might win. But on Tuesday night, that changed. Now, UMHB believed it would win.
“They have 10 wins this season,” Stawski, UMHB’s head coach said postgame. “In nine of those wins, they were trailing at some point. So I told the guys, ‘No lead is safe. Trinity will never feel like they’re out of the game. It doesn’t matter how much we’re winning or what part of the game we’re in.’ You felt that way.
“But at some point, I looked down my dugout and thought, ‘Oh man, we think we’re going to win the game. That was cool. Because I also knew that not one person in that dugout had ever beaten Trinity before. So the whole dugout was working in uncharted waters. You can’t worry about the past. This is a new frontier.”
A new frontier indeed. For the first time in quite a while, the program has achieved consecutive victories over Top 25 teams, as the Cru defeated UT-Dallas, now ranked No. 5 in the nation, 12-10 in Saturday’s series finale. In both of the recent wins, UMHB looked every bit the part of a ranked team. The moment was never too big, and no lead was too large.
In fact, in Saturday afternoon’s duel, no doubt fatigued after playing two games within the last 24 hours, the Crusaders allowed the Comets five runs immediately. Slowly, but surely, however, UMHB pulled back into the contest, scoring four runs over the final two innings.
It was a similar case on Tuesday, as the Tigers took an early 2-0 lead, and led 7-5 entering the bottom of the seventh. But UMHB responded with a wild four-run inning, taking advantage of two errors and running the bases with aggression in addition to four hits and a pair of walks. It gave the Cru a 9-7 advantage, and they pulled away in the eighth, winning 12-9.
“All that momentum that Trinity had and was trying to create, our guys weren’t afraid of it,” Stawski said. “We see it coming. We see excitement. We see some baserunners on. But we expect to win too. So we’re not going to just let you. That was a proud moment for me, when I could see our guys going, ‘We expect to win this thing too.’”
That confidence has been built over the course of not just this season, but last year as well, in which UMHB won an ASC Tournament game for the first time since 2014. There has already been a share of ups and downs. A series win over Hardin-Simmons began the year on a good note. Being swept in a doubleheader at McMurry the following Saturday was a point of struggle. But both types of situations have pushed the Crusaders to reach new heights, and on Tuesday night, the effects of that mentality were evident.
“What I told the guys, and it happens to every team that’s in our position is, when you’re not playing great sometimes or you’re in a bit of a lull, some self-doubt creeps in. It’s natural. Individual self-doubt: “Am I good enough to start? Am I good enough to get some innings on the mound?” Then there’s some team doubt: “Are we good enough to finish in the top four? Are we good enough to play with these guys?”
“All that happens, and then you go and beat UTD after giving them five runs in the first. You just give the No. 5 team in the country five runs and then come back and beat them. And then Trinity walks into your place, midweek, and you beat them. Honestly, we were the better team the whole game. There’s no fluke to this win.”
There was not. UMHB remained in the fight for the entirety of the game. And the same was true against UT-Dallas, who had lost just twice in 19 games entering Saturday’s series finale. The Crusaders, 10-9 on the year, are putting any kind of doubt behind them. Powered by swift baserunning, consistent hitting, and some quality arms on the mound, Stawski’s squad is turning the corner and looking ahead entering a critical stretch in the year, with just over a month left in the regular season. UMHB battles Belhaven in a three-game ASC series that begins Friday at 4 p.m. CT in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Any kind of doubt that ever creeps in should be gone now,” Stawski added. “So on Friday, in game one, if we’re down 3-1 in the fifth to Belhaven, you can’t go, ‘I wonder if we’re going to win?’ Because you’re going to go, ‘We’re going to win this game. We just played with the best. And beat them.’
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to win out. But the doubt that creeps in sometimes when things aren’t going our way, those days are over. Confidence now is going to be the instinct feeling when we take the field.”
For a program that did not win more than 11 games in either the 2018 or 2019 seasons, and had the majority of its 2020 season canceled due to Covid-19, achieving back-to-back Top 25 wins is a sign that Crusader baseball is trending upwards. But that is not all. Stawski believes this is not merely a peak in the season, but rather preparation, and possibly a sign, of what is to come.
“These two wins are hallmark wins that are going to carry us throughout the season,” Stawski said. “We’re going to look back on these wins when we’re getting ready for the [ASC] tournament, saying, ‘You played the best in the country and beat them. So take that with you.’ It’s going to be something that drives us from here on out.”