|If Mary Hardin-Baylor is to successfully defend its title, the defense will be front and center in the process.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
There’s something happening at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, something that goes beyond the fresh Walnut and Bronze trophy that came to campus just over 11 months ago.
The football team remains ranked No. 1, a position the Cru have held since the final regular season poll of 2016. But they are not the only exciting story in Belton, Texas this season. The football, volleyball, and men’s and women’s soccer teams are a combined 61-7-2 in 2017.
“It’s kind of funny, I get that question often. There’s certainly something. I can’t necessarily scientifically explain why. There’s something there that’s elevated our programs,” said athletic director Randy Mann. “I think it’s due in large part to the success our football program has had. I think a lot of our coaches have worked hard for several years to elevate their programs. I think this year it’s come together for all of them. I think the success the football program has had for several years has helped all of our teams.”
Ever since football was added in 1998, the Cru have had success on the field. That sustained excellence, coupled with the new on-campus stadium opened in 2013, has fueled the atmosphere on campus.
“Football here at UMHB going back to 1998 changed our university. There’s a school spirit, there’s a school growth because of that,” said men’s soccer coach Brad Bankhead. “It creates this buzz around campus. When you have that energy and spirit, there’s certainly something that makes you want to be a part of that.”
Bankhead has 119 wins over his 12 seasons and led the men’s soccer program to its first American Southwest Conference title in 2009. Barry Elkins, a UMHB men’s soccer alum, has led the women’s soccer program to unprecedented heights. He has notched 69 wins in his six seasons at the helm, including a program-record 15 and counting this season. Similarly, Rob Frost has led the volleyball program to new benchmarks during his tenure. At 25-3, the Cru are four wins away from tying the program record set in 2013.
Either there’s something in the water in Belton, or the Crusaders teams feed off of one another’s success.
“I think success breeds a little bit of that, no question. When we’re recruiting, we’re selling our athletic department, not just men’s soccer,” said Bankhead. “I think recruits and our students can see the level of support and success all throughout our athletic department. When you have that, I think you can dream bigger. You can see that there’s an opportunity here regardless of the sport.”
While the football team is not going to take credit for the success of the other programs, the Stagg Bowl championship certainly helped raise the university’s profile. The Cru have noticed their fellow student-athletes shining this season.
“You can definitely see the talent this fall, not just in football. It’s been tremendous,” said senior safety and captain Kris Brown. “Mary Hardin-Baylor is not just a football school. All of our programs have been pretty good and this fall they’ve all brought in much better recruiting classes. There’s a lot of freshmen with a lot of potential on all of the rosters.”
Even when a prospect is being recruited for another sport, there’s a good chance that he or she has heard of Mary Hardin-Baylor. Most likely, that prospect’s knowledge of Crusaders athletics begins with the national championship football squad.
“It’s amazing. I don’t know if it has anything to do with us winning the national championship, but it’s certainly fun to see all the success our teams are having,” said football coach Pete Fredenburg. “Our university has changed so dramatically in the years since we started our football program. Winning it all has helped the whole atmosphere of campus.”
This is the 20th season of football at UMHB, all with Fredenburg at the helm. He surpassed another benchmark this season and now has a record of 204-38. The Cru haven’t lost a football game since 2015.
“I think it helped everyone here elevate their level. We can actually say now that we’re a championship program,” said Brown. “Definitely there’s a hunger to get back. There’s a bar that’s been set. Coach Fred talks about how now we know what it takes.”
Finally winning the championship 12 years after making their first appearance in Salem has changed the mindset of the football program. It has also changed the university as a whole.
“Football’s brought a lot of positive change to our campus. It’s helped not just in the recruitment of other student-athletes, but all students,” said Mann. “I was elated for Pete and all the coaches who worked so hard. You realize when you’ve been there as many times as we have been how difficult it is to win a championship. I think they’re motivated now to go back and do it again. We’re not relaxing, I’ll promise you that.”
This year more than others, the coaching staff has not had to do much to get the players’ attention. Winning every game last year just made the Crusaders that much more determined to keep this win streak alive.
“The expectations from our players are very high,” said Fredenburg. “They hold each other accountable at practice.”
“The difference last year was not the talent; the difference last year was leadership,” added Brown. “You have [teammates] challenging you rather than coaches challenging you. We’re only going to go as far as our leaders take us.”
The same can be said for the volleyball and soccer teams. Those three programs are either in the midst of or preparing for ASC tournament play. If they can win the conference and advance to the NCAA playoffs, they’ll have their own opportunities to bring another national championship to Mary Hardin-Baylor.
The student body is rallying behind every program, knowing that the sky really is the limit for Crusaders athletics now.
“Our fall sports record is pretty incredible,” said Mann. “We support each other. We talk about it all the time that we’re all in this together.”
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. This week’s guest is Wilkes senior Garrett Armstrong. The tight end has 12 career touchdown catches, but his Colonels are in the midst of a nine-game losing skid.
I fell in love with football when I was younger because of the fun I was having with the game. As I got older, my interest in football grew because of the relationships I formed with people involved with football, like friends and coaches.
I still love the game today because of the competitiveness of football. I can always get better at something on the field, and trying to become the best player I can be is what still fuels me.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
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There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!