Arrival of the playoffs: 3 takeaways from Larry Harmon’s Nov. 14 press conference

Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru

BELTON- Selection Sunday was different this time around for Larry Harmon.

The first-year UMHB head coach had been through plenty of selection Sundays over the last two decades as the Cru’s defensive coordinator, but Sunday’s bracket reveal was naturally different for Harmon, considering 2022 has been a year of quite a few firsts for him. 

“You just count your blessings,” Harmon said at Monday’s press conference. “That’s really what it was, just feeling humbled and blessed to be the guy. I’m really happy for my kids, that all their hard work has paid off.” 

The Crusaders already knew they were into the D-III playoffs before Sunday, having captured the program’s 18th straight title, which clinched the ASC’s automatic bid to the postseason. But the news that came about in the bracket reveal was UMHB’s first round matchup, set to be played in Belton against Huntingdon College

And so it begins. UMHB, ranked No. .3 in the nation by D3football.com, begins its Stagg Bowl quest this Saturday, looking to defend the 2021 national championship. Here are three takeaways from Harmon’s press conference as UMHB enters the postseason. 

Huntingdon possesses plenty of offensive challenges

Huntingdon qualified for the postseason in the same way UMHB did, having secured one of the 27 automatic bids granted to conference champions by winning the USA South Conference, with a perfect 7-0 record in league play. The Hawks soar into the postseason on a nine-game winning streak, having earned notable victories over Birmingham-Southern and Belhaven, along with a narrow seven-point loss to Linfield, who is ranked No. 1 in Region 6. 

“They’re very athletic across the board,” Harmon said when asked about what makes Huntingdon successful offensively. 

The Hawks are one of the nation’s better scoring teams, averaging 40.1 points per game. Extremely balanced, they have averaged 264.8 passing yards and 209.0 rushing yards per game, meaning the versatility of the UMHB defense will be tested. 

“They have an athletic offensive line,” Harmon continued. “They have good receivers who catch and block. That’s what is impressive about them; they’re so physical. Their quarterback has a lot of experience, and they have two running backs who are very good. They create defensive problems. They’re very balanced, and physical. We have our hands full.” 

“You have to run the gamut anyway”

UMHB enters the postseason in a favorable position, aided by a decent strength of schedule of .509, and a Top 10 win on its resume after beating No. 9 Hardin-Simmons 50-20 in ASC play. However, the Crusaders were ranked No. 3 in Region 3 when last week’s NCAA regional rankings came out. And in the bracket, that is reflected, with Trinity (TX) considered the top seed. In other words, if UMHB and Trinity both win in the first round, the Crusaders are likely headed to San Antonio for the second round. 

Harmon was asked about UMHB not being placed as a “top seed”, and if that gives his players any kind of added motivation heading into Saturday’s matchup. 

“It’s disappointing but I wouldn’t say it’s a chip on anybody’s shoulder,” he replied. “The coaches are probably more frustrated about it than the players are. But it is what it is. 

“We’re very excited to have an opportunity to be in this playoff tournament. You have to run the gamut anyway. I don’t think anybody has more players on their team who have won a national championship than we do. We’re feeling confident and blessed. Now we just have to put together five weeks of solid football.” 

The secret to UMHB’s postseason success?

UMHB has been a mainstay in the playoffs for the last several years, and through those runs, the Crusaders have enjoyed an opportunity few teams around the nation have had: the chance to continue bonding as a team through the additional week, or as has been the case at UMHB for at least a decade now, the weeks of postseason play. 

“Every day is just another day you have a chance to practice and stay together as a team. These seniors know they have to win every single week to get five [more games]. This thing is over in five weeks regardless. They feel very blessed and fortunate to still get to be together.”

But in such a competitive 32-team field, it seems easy for the pressure to become overwhelming, even for a nationally-ranked program like UMHB. The road to victory, starting with Huntingdon will not be all smooth-sailing. Harmon was asked about how his players, many of them having already experienced the 2021 Stagg Bowl run, handle this crucial point in the year. 

“I don’t think our kids, since 2016, have felt pressure with it,” Harmon said. “It’s more feeling grateful and excited about the opportunity. That’s probably a big secret to our success in the postseason.” 

That excitement has led to an increased intensity, going back to last week, when the Cru’s playoff bid was locked in, but the regular season finale against McMurry still had to be played. In what Harmon described as UMHB’s “most complete game”, they dominated in a 62-3 win, holding McMurry to just eight first downs and 102 yards of offense. 

“We challenged the seniors last week to stop expecting things to get a little easier, and instead do hard better. I felt like that struck a chord with them. We went out and were dynamic in practice. Not just the varsity guys playing, but our JV kids too. 

“Everybody gave an extra boost of energy and effort. If we can keep that up, which I fully intend that our seniors will, we’re going to be prepared every Saturday.”

UMHB kicks off against Huntingdon at noon on Nov. 19.

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