|Reese Childress was held to 89 yards from scrimmage in Hardin-Simmons' first meeting with Mary Hardin-Baylor, but then again, HSU only had 222 yards to speak of as a team.
Hardin-Simmons athletics photo by Monica Weatherly
By Brian Lester
Senior wide receiver Reese Childress gathered with the rest of his Hardin-Simmons teammates Sunday to watch the playoff selection show. The anticipation built up as the Cowboys waited to learn their fate.
“It was fun to watch. We saw our name come up and we were excited about it,” Childress said. “It’s another chance to play football. It’s a blessing.”
The opponent is a familiar one. The Cowboys square off with conference opponent Mary Hardin-Baylor on Saturday in the opening round of the NCAA Division III postseason.
HSU head coach Jesse Burleson woke up Sunday not sure if the Cowboys would get in, though they certainly had a case for an at-large bid considering they finished 9-1, their only loss coming against the Crusaders back in October. HSU fell 26-0 in that game.
This will be the fourth consecutive appearance in the playoffs for the Cowboys.
“It was kind of a strange deal because in the past we were either sure or pretty sure we were getting in,” Burleson said. “This year, we didn’t know. We were five in both regional polls that came out. Things were a little dicey. On Sunday, our name was the second one that came up and that was a relief.”
In the past HSU has traveled to another region of the country to play its first-round game.
A year ago, the Cowboys went West to play Linfield. They lost 27-13. They played host to Linfield in 2016 and fell 24-10. This is their first postseason meeting with The Cru since 2015 when they were knocked off 37-19.
While it can prove helpful to play a familiar opponent, Burleson said he would rather face someone different. He believes most coaches prefer it that way.
In this instance, though, the Cowboys must prepare for a team they have seen already. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will take the same approach as they did the last time they played The Cru.
“I think the big thing is you have to approach it like it’s a new opponent,” Burleson said. “You have to game plan different in all three phases, especially coming off a loss against them. We’ll tweak things and move some things around, but we are going to be who we are and make sure we prepare better to be in a position to execute and be successful on Saturday.”
Childress agrees that changes will be made to the team’s preparation.
“We didn’t have the right mindset the last time. It’s different this time,” Childress said. “This is a different game and we want to play at a different level. We have to put in the work to be ready to do that.”
HSU has been a different team since the loss to UMHB. The Cowboys have won four of their last five games by at least 21 points. They capped the regular season with an 83-6 win over crosstown rival McMurry to win the Wilford Moore Trophy.
“We’ve made some personnel changes, playing some receivers with guys like Kevi Evans and Rae Millsap stepping up, and we moved one of our receivers, Bryson Hammonds, to running back, and he’s done really well filling in for Jaquan Hemphill. He’s a very dynamic player,” Burleson said.
The approach to practice and everything else that goes into preparation for a football game has changed as well.
“Our overall approach to meetings, film study, everything, has dramatically improved,” Burleson said. “The biggest thing with our guys is I feel like we are on an upward trend. We’re not beat up or banged up like a lot of teams at this point. The guys are really enjoying practicing and playing and getting better each week.”
Childress has played a key role in the success of the Cowboys. He leads the team in receiving with 65 catches for 847 yards and has scored 10 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for three scores.
He said the turnaround for HSU since that loss to UMHB is a matter of everyone buying in.
“Everyone has bought in and we are just having fun playing together as a team,” Childress said. “We’re playing at another level right now and bringing our best effort every week. We expect to do that again this week.”
Burleson said he’s certainly sensed a different kind of energy among his players over the last five weeks.
“Just to see those players make a, I don’t know if new commitment is the right word, but to see them bring a new energy, a new enthusiasm and a whole new approach and understanding of what it takes to be successful has been enjoyable,” Burleson said. “This is a great group to be around. They have fun, but they work hard and get the job done.”
Childress adds that the offense and defense have enjoyed watching each other make big plays. The Cowboys are cranking out nearly 550 yards per game (547.8) and allowing just over 300 (308.2).
“We are feeding off the energy and momentum of each other,” Childress said. “When the offense makes a play, the defense gets excited, and the same thing goes for the defense when we make a play. We’re having a lot of fun right now.”
Burleson said the players have raised their level of play, which in turn has cranked up the level of play for the team as a whole. He’s looking forward to seeing how everything plays out Saturday. What he knows for sure is that the Cowboys are ready for the rematch with The Cru.
“We’re definitely not the same team we were five weeks ago,” Burleson said. “This is a great opportunity for us. An opportunity we want. We know we have a great challenge in front of us, but we’re going to embrace it and attack it head on.”
Childress can’t wait to take the field for postseason football.
“We’re going to play the best we can and play for each other and for the Lord,” Childress said. “We’re blessed to be here and we are going to leave it all on the field and see what happens.”