Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- How do you push forward after losing a national championship-caliber game? By simply moving on.
That was one of UMHB head coach Larry Harmon’s main points in the early minutes of his weekly press conference on Monday morning, as he fielded questions, almost all of which were related to Saturday’s road loss to now-No. 4 Wisconsin-Whitewater. But rather than disappointment, Harmon exuded expectancy, focusing on the positives of what can come from playing on the road against one of the nation’s most accomplished programs, and taking them down to the wire in an instant classic. There are numerous lessons to be learned, he noted.
“We’ve had a long, hard look at it as a staff,” Harmon said. “I have great coaches, great men who really care and take this personally. We’re going to be better from it. What I want the kids to learn is understanding the situations they’re in because we could have done so many things differently to be successful that we just didn’t. I want to move on from it.”
The Crusaders are now ranked No. 5 in the nation, and return to the field in the conference opener against Southwestern on Saturday night in Belton. Here are three main takeaways from what Harmon had to say at his Sept. 12 press conference.
The daunting non-conference schedule against consecutive Top 15 teams undoubtedly paid off, even with the 1-1 record
Though some may criticize the scheduling decision to put Muhlenberg and Wisconsin-Whitewater in the season’s first two weeks, UMHB will benefit in a big way from playing against high-quality opponents straight out of the gate. Starting 1-1 was never the plan, but even in Saturday’s loss, Harmon expects the long-term benefits to be a viable trade-off.
“Scheduling these games early really helps you develop your team,” Harmon noted. “Even with a loss, you’re still better off as a team moving forward and that’s what I anticipate happening with us.”
He felt that very element played a major role in the Warhawks ability to respond to adversity on Saturday, especially when the Whitewater offense was tasked with marching the length of the field late in the fourth quarter, trailing 24-21. Having opened the season on the road at No. 3 St. John’s, and lost to the Johnnies, the Warhawks learned many of the lessons heading into week two that UMHB will now carry into week three.
“With Whitewater dealing with all the adversity that they dealt with against St. John’s, and losing, [it] helped them in those critical times, where we were really having to dig to make the play. Not experiencing that kind of atmosphere was in my opinion a big factor in the outcome of the game.
“Whitewater had already experienced it, they’ve already been in that situation, where it’s on the line, you have to perform, you’ve got to have max concentration. They really did a great job in those situations and we didn’t. I think that’s a credit to the game they played against St. John’s.”
Southwestern will face a team eager to avenge its mistakes, and begin the road to ASC title No. 18
There were numerous takeaways from the matchup at UW-Whitewater, but it is applying those nuances that will help the Cru get back into the win column. Staying physical, reading the opposing defense, and executing defensively in third-down situations are just a few of the things Harmon anticipates improvement on against Southwestern.
“I think we need to go out there and play with confidence and play fast,” Harmon said. “We’ve got to understand what we’re doing on third and long. And execute what we do. The same with offense. We’ve got to understand the box that we’re getting and get us in the right play to take advantage of the defense. Then, there’s going to be times where it’s whoever is the most physical at that moment. We’ve got to be the most physical team. And we weren’t at the critical times last week against Wisconsin-Whitewater.”
The team responded well to those miscues, and Harmon noted that there was “no pointing fingers” from the team on Sunday. Only a drive to improve.
“They came in and there wasn’t any pointing fingers. It was, ‘What did I do wrong?’, ‘How can I do better?’, ‘What does the team need me to do?’. That’s what I’m proud of. That’s our culture.”
The contest against Southwestern is the first in an eight-game ASC slate for UMHB, with No. 6 Hardin-Simmons on tap on Sept. 24. The simplest road to the postseason lies in winning the conference, something the Cru has done 17 times in program history, and is the only guaranteed way to rest easy come Selection Sunday. The alternative route is through five Pool C bids selected by the playoff committee, which are awarded to teams that did not win their conference, but have a resume worthy of a spot in the 32-team bracket.
“We’re in a playoff mode from here on out,” he added. “We know we have to win the conference to guarantee a chance to be in the playoffs. That was said as soon as I picked these two non-conference games. We chose these two teams because we thought it was going to be what we needed to be ready to win our conference. We know we’re going to have to play well. And it starts with Southwestern.”
This is another benefit of maturity in the starting lineup
10 of UMHB’s starters on Saturday were seniors, and with 24 seniors on the varsity, there is plenty of maturity on the roster. That experience level was one of the major strengths for UMHB entering the season, and will play a role in the rebound from the loss at Whitewater.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a problem being focused and locked in after yesterday’s workout and how our leadership and unity council took care of practice yesterday,” Harmon said.
“The [senior leaders] give everybody confidence, because Kyle [King], KJ [Miller], our offensive line, Tommy Bowden, Titus Dunk, everybody is saying, ‘We understand the situation we’re in, but we’re going to be ok. This is what happens when you take on games like this.’”
In the past, it has been common that following a narrow defeat, especially in the regular season, one or more of the team’s players will take charge and offer up some sort of motivational message, such as Chad Starnes’ speech after the loss to Hardin-Simmons in 2004. Though Harmon did not reveal who spoke or what was said, it was evident that the team meeting on Saturday night provided plenty of positives, especially coming just hours after the defeat.
“When we got back from Whitewater on Saturday night, we had a unity council meeting, then a team meeting,” Harmon told reporters. “A lot of people said a lot of things. I thought it was very healthy for our team moving forward.”
UMHB kicks off against Southwestern at 6 p.m. on Saturday night. Stay tuned on Truetothecru.com for a complete preview of the matchup on Thursday evening.