Third straight title game berth comes with an exorcising of demons for UMHB

Photo by Russell Wilburn

BELTON -- In a game that featured two titans of NCAA DIII football, No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor defeated No. 4 Wisconsin-Whitewater 31-14 in the national semifinals. With this win, UMHB will meet No. 1 Mount Union in a national championship showdown in Shenandoah, Texas next Friday at 6 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU. The Crusaders also placed their storied football program into rarified air in the history of NCAA with this victory as they join Mount Union, Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Augustana (IL) as the only NCAA DIII schools to reach three straight Stagg Bowls.


Entering today’s game, Mary Hardin-Baylor had never defeated Wisconsin-Whitewater in five previous tries. Four of the previous five meetings between the two teams had been in the national semifinals. The last loss for the Cru to UWW was a heartbreaking 16-15 defeat in 2013. Wisconsin-Whitewater is also the only team with a winning record against UMHB in the Crusaders program history. The Warhawks even entered this game with the nation’s second longest winning streak at 18 games. 


The Crusaders did exactly what was needed to defeat a longtime nemesis. The first key for the Cru was to win the turnover margin. UMHB forced four turnovers in the game and head coach Pete Fredenburg raved about his defense: “I thought they played incredible and our staff did a fantastic job.” Joey Longoria forced a fumble in the second quarter that was recovered by Raylon Hickey. Hickey then forced a fumble that was recovered by Santos Villarreal in the third quarter when Wisconsin-Whitewater had momentum and was driving towards the UMHB endzone. Keith Gipson and Jefferson Fritz each recorded interceptions in the fourth quarter to help UMHB pull away from the Warhawks.


UMHB was also able to take advantage of the turnovers by scoring points off the turnovers. The second quarter fumble by the Warhawks that was recovered by Hickey led to a 31-yard field goal by Anthony Avila to give the Cru an early 10-0 lead. The Crusaders also turned the Gipson interception into key points as Markeith Miller scored four plays later to extend the UMHB lead to an insurmountable 24-7 with 9:05 remaining in the game.


The Cru also benefitted by missed opportunities from Wisconsin-Whitewater. With the Cru facing a third down and 15 yards near midfield going into the wind early in the second quarter, the Warhawks called a timeout as they were not set on defense. The Cru took advantage with a 17-yard pass for a first down that led to their opening touchdown. UWW also had a clear interception bounce off the defensive back’s chest in the third quarter, only trailing by 7 points and with the Cru on their heels. The Warhawks were also unable to capitalize on the only Crusader turnover as they missed a 24-yard field goal attempt following a 64-yard interception return by Bryce Leszczynski.


Mary Hardin-Baylor has faced a tough road through this year’s NCAA DIII playoffs. Next week’s opponent will be the toughest yet as they face the defending national champion No. 1 Mount Union. The Purple Raiders enter with the nation’s longest winning streak currently at 29 games. Mount Union is making their 21st appearance in the national championship game and they have the most titles in NCAA DIII history with 13 championships. Fredenburg has a large amount of respect for Mount Union.

“They are the epitome of division three football," he said. "We will always have a competitive game on our hands.”

UMHB is making their fourth appearance in the Stagg Bowl and third straight. The Crusaders have one national title, which came in 2016 when they defeated Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The Cru will be looking to avenge last year’s 12-0 loss to the Purple Raiders in the Stagg Bowl. However, the Cru aren’t worried about revenge according to Raylon Hickey. 

“Personally, I think we just put it off to the side and just go out there and perform,” he said.

One advantage for the Cru this year is the new location of the game which will be played 160 miles from Mary Hardin-Baylor’s campus in Shenandoah. Fredenburg is happy to be in Texas for this Stagg Bowl.

“We are just so excited about being in Shenandoah, Texas. It might be cold or unpredictable, but you know if you go to Salem, Va. it’s always cold,” he said.  

One thing is for sure. Next Friday night at 6 p.m. at Woodforest Bank Stadium will be a clash of NCAA DIII titans that no one should miss.

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