Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- History was made in Longview last Thursday night. But then again, history was made two days later at ETBU, and again Thursday night in UMHB’s 5-1 win over Sul Ross State. And the record books could be rewritten on Saturday night when Howard Payne comes to Belton.
Because as head coach Barry Elkins points out, every victory resets the record books. Entering the fall, the best start in program history was 7-0. On Saturday afternoon, the Crusaders will have their sights on 11-0.
“Honestly it was not talked about, it was not brought up,” Elkins said of the win a week ago that made this the first UMHB team to begin a season 8-0. “It was all about business. After the game, my brain immediately went to ETBU, and they said, ‘Coach, we made history!’ Then we turned around, and it was, ‘We can make history again. We just have to keep winning.’”
The team is undoubtedly in uncharted territory now, not always an easy level of pressure to handle. But if there was going to be a group to do it, it was this one. Deeper than any past UMHB team, and more experienced too, the senior leadership was not just a preseason talking point. It has played a role in the Cru’s rise to national recognition in each match.
“I would love to say that it all comes from me, but I’ve sat back, and outside of being a coach and doing my job, I’ve let the leaders lead. We truly have some tremendous leadership and that is literally carrying us through.”
The maturity and experience of this team is rare. Three players; Shay Taylor, Grace Greenly, and Kristen Burdick, made the decision to return for a fifth year, and seven more are true seniors. This is a battle-tested group, a group that has played in countless conference tournament matches, seen action against nearly every team UMHB has or will face this fall, and has the awareness level to adjust the playing style based on the opponent. Those in-game adjustments, the collective leadership, and an unmatched cohesiveness have been a key part of this exceptional start.
“I’ve always said that it is more special your senior season,” Elkins, who played for UMHB’s men’s soccer team for four seasons before graduating in 1997, said. “There’s always something in the back of your head that says, ‘Oh bummer, we didn’t do it, but it’s alright, I have next year.’ For a lot of these kids, that is 100 percent not the case.”
Having one last shot at an NCAA Tournament berth and a conference championship was undoubtedly an influencer when the decisions were made by athletes across all college sports about the additional year of eligibility granted as a result of the Covid pandemic. But for the fifth-years on this team, it went deeper. The driving force was as much their own career as the success and memories of the freshmen and sophomores on the roster.
“All three of my fifth years have said they want the younger ones to experience a chance to win,” Elkins said. “I love that mentality from them. It’s not exactly about just one more chance to win a ring. It’s the chance they have to give back.”
Incredibly, this early success has come primarily on the road. Entering tonight’s contest, UMHB had played a grand total of one match at home, beating Southwestern on Sept. 21. Outside of that, they opened the year in Abilene, have won in both Arkansas and Mississippi, along with victories in San Antonio, Seguin, Marshall and Longview.
“They have the right mentality,” Elkins said Monday. “This group says, ‘We’ll play anytime, anywhere, just let us play.’ They go out there with that same mentality every game. Don’t get me wrong, we’re ready to play at home. But we’ve kind of been everywhere.”
The wins are nice. So is the No. 14 national ranking. But Elkins cannot overstate one message enough; the Crusaders have “one singular goal” and that is capturing the ASC title. Cliche as that may sound, it really isn’t. Since UMHB’s D-III debut in 1998, there have been some stellar squads, including the 2017 team that reached the national tournament. But not one of those 24 teams has ever claimed a conference title.
“You’re refined in the fire,” Elkins noted. “This group has largely lost three conference finals. They have a chip on their shoulder. That has to be spoken of. It’s got to be part of it. We go into games, and for a bunch of them, it’s personal. There’s no malice to it, but there’s a lot of them that are just taking it on the shoulder, saying ‘We want to accomplish something.’”
The road to the ASC title has gone through Hardin-Simmons for much of the last two decades. The Cowgirls have claimed 19 consecutive titles, and UMHB has learned all too well that even the slightest of margins can be the difference. Six of the last seven meetings between the two have been decided by a single goal or, in the case of last year’s ASC title match, on penalty kicks. But that is not enough. Not for a team with aspirations beyond the regular season. The Cru is 0-36-2 against HSU, though that could change on Oct. 22, when they meet in Belton in a conference showdown.
For the intensity of the match, with it typically determining who wins the regular season conference championship, and therefore who gets to host the ASC tournament, this contest will live up to the hype. With UMHB’s quick start, the opportunity for the program’s first win over the Cowgirls is certainly there. But Elkins has a different approach. That one has importance, no doubt, but the regular season finale at Concordia on Oct. 28 should not be overlooked.
“The HSU match isn’t the defining part of this because that’s just one step to getting to the conference tournament,” Elkins said. “The big side of that match is we want to host [the ASC tournament]. We felt like we were one win away from hosting last year and we think that’s a key to success.
“[After HSU], we have to turn around and play Concordia. That’s probably going to be the biggest match of the year, honestly. That last game is the one we’re looking at because it leads into the conference tournament.”
As the wins continue to mount, inevitably the pressure builds. The undefeated record with less than a month left in the regular season has caught people’s attention, and as each match unfolds, it is hard not to see history in the making. Not necessarily just in terms of the wins and the losses, but it is where those wins could lead, especially as November rolls around.
“There’s pressure that comes with winning, but we’ve earned that pressure,” Elkins told True To The Cru earlier in the week. ”That’s something we’ve worked for and we relish it, so we know the pressure that’s coming. Because of the ranking and the record at this point, we know we’re going to get everyone’s best.”