/playoffs/2018/cru-defense-rises

Crusaders defense rises to the challenge

More news about: Mary Hardin-Baylor
All Jefferson Fritz does is make plays in big moments, especially in the postseason.
Joe Fusco, d3photography.com

 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

The numbers pop off the screen--91, 68, 77, 80, 80, 75.

Mary Hardin-Baylor leads the nation in scoring at 57.4 points per game. The Cru hung that 75-spot on Berry in a second round playoff game.

Those numbers may distract you from the equally impressive numbers on the other side of the ledger. On Saturday, St. John’s became just the third opponent this season to score multiple touchdowns in a game against the Cru. None of those three teams scored a touchdown in the first half of their loss to the undefeated Crusaders.

Mary Hardin-Baylor also leads the nation in scoring defense, yielding just 7.5 points per game. The Cru have pitched three shutouts. The defense has allowed just 13 touchdowns, while scoring nine of its own.

“I think our stats and our play speak for itself. We have athletes all around the field and feel like we can match up against any offense in the country,” said senior linebacker Jalen Martin. “Our goal is to shut out everybody and stop people from getting into the end zone. That doesn’t change from game to game.”

The defense has forced a nation-best 41 turnovers. Despite playing three different quarterbacks, the offense has coughed the ball up just 11 times. Not surprisingly, the Cru leads the nation in turnover margin.

“If you work it enough and you have veteran players who are athletic enough, then you’ve got something. The biggest thing is having the guys who can do it,” said defensive coordinator Larry Harmon of his team’s knack for takeaways. “We feel like if we can make teams one-dimensional and get the ball in the air, we’ve got really good skilled DBs who are going to make the plays.”

Going up against that potent offense each day in practice makes the Cru defense better. On game days, they don’t face outside receivers as big and strong as T.J. Josey or Jonel Reed. They won’t have to chase slot receivers as quick and fast as K.J. Miller or Aaron Sims.

“Our offense gives us great looks in practice all year. They make us better and we make them better,” said sophomore safety Jefferson Fritz. “It’s definitely a competitive atmosphere every day in practice. There’s no wide receivers out there that can compare to ours.”

Fritz leads the nation with 10 interceptions. He had his coming out party in last year’s Stagg Bowl, intercepting two passes. Before facing Fritz and the Crusaders in that game, Mount Union quarterback D’Angelo Fulford had only thrown three interceptions all season. St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann had been intercepted five times all season, and not at all since October 13. The Cru picked him off three times in Saturday’s quarterfinal win; Fritz snagged two of them.

“When the ball is in the air, we’ve got to go get it,” said Fritz. “We know our defensive line will take care of us, so we’ve got to take care of them too.”

Fritz is a ball hawk and has the skill set to play nearly any position on the field. When a coach complements a defensive players’ receiving skills, he usually adds a qualifier--”Great hands, for a defensive back.” That’s not the case with Fritz.

“You want him where he can be around the most field and chart where the ball is going to be thrown because he’s got incredible hand-eye coordination. He’s got some of the best hands I’ve ever seen,” said Harmon of his star sophomore. “He could be a wide receiver or quarterback. If you’re playing in the sandlot when you’re a kid, he’d be everybody’s first pick.”

Martin was recruited to Belton as a wide receiver. He was then moved to safety. He’s found his home at linebacker, leading the team with 10 pass breakups and ranking second with four interceptions to go along with 52 tackles.

“He played deep safety, then we found that he had more instincts the closer he got to the line of scrimmage,” said Harmon. “He is a student of the game. He’s faster on the field because of the work he puts in in the film room.”

Extra work has prepared the Cru for the challenge ahead of them this week. A victory on Saturday will grant the program its third straight Stagg Bowl berth. Fourteen extra weeks of postseason practices over the past three years has helped prepare the next wave of Crusaders who served as backups during the championship run of 2016 and the runner-up finish in 2017.

“Any time you’re able to play this far into the postseason, it helps you. Even your freshmen get more practice experience from extending your postseason,” said Harmon. “Their football life, it doesn’t get fast. In ‘16, it was fast for us. It felt like every week got faster for us. It was a whirlwind. There’s a lot more familiarity and comfort with it now. Nobody’s waiting to be told what the process is.”

There is one unique wrinkle to this year’s run. The Crusaders know that a win in the semifinal means playing nearly a home game in the Stagg Bowl. For the first time, the Division III title game will be held in Texas. Shenandoah, the site of this year’s Stagg Bowl, is only 160 miles from Belton.

“The home crowd back here throughout the playoffs is something that we really wanted. We’ve got our mind set on that,” said Martin.

“I wouldn’t say pressure, but I think we’re really excited. It’s more exciting that we get the opportunity,” said Fritz. “We’ve just got one more game [to get there]. We plan on taking care of business.”

That one game will be another big challenge for the battle-tested Crusaders. On their road to the Stagg Bowl, the Cru have faced the No. 7, No. 20, No. 3, and No. 5-ranked teams in the final Top 25 poll of the regular season.

“You can’t talk about the Stagg Bowl when you’ve got Wisconsin-Whitewater staring you right in the face. But the kids know what’s on the line,” said Harmon. “To have a Texas team play in the first one in Texas would be very special. We know that we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.”

Sunday was a learning day for the defense that had been nearly impenetrable all season. Watching film to find how Erdmann carved them up for 418 yards and two touchdowns was instructive. Big plays, including Fritz’s game-clinching interception in the end zone, preserved the 21-18 win. At this point of the season, the Crusaders know that they have to learn from each mistake, something Harmon says has been a strength of the unit this season.

“We’re just confident that everybody will play well and plays for each other and we’ve got each other’s backs when it comes down to crunch time. Our team chemistry is what holds it together,” said Martin. “You’ve got to be prepared for everything. There’s not a bad team left. You’ve got to minimize your mistakes and rise to the occasion. With more games, comes more experience and more tests. The experience of the past couple of years plays in our favor. We know that the pressure rises, so we have to rise with it.”

Sep. 13: All times Eastern
Final - OT
Coast Guard 24, at Nichols 23
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Final
Western New England 56, at Westfield State 35
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Final
at Massachusetts Maritime 31, SUNY-Maritime 14
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Final
Becker 12, at Worcester State 10
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Final
William Paterson 28, at FDU-Florham 23
Sep. 14: All times Eastern
Final
at Brockport 14, Framingham State 0
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Final
at Lawrence Tech 34, Wisconsin Lutheran 14
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Final
at Norwich 30, St. Lawrence 24
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Final
Montclair State 28, at Salve Regina 11
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Final
at Utica 26, Buffalo State 15
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Final
at Springfield 21, Kean 14
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Final
at St. John Fisher 35, Bridgewater State 28
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Final - OT
at Mass-Dartmouth 48, Husson 41
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Final
Shenandoah 35, at N.C. Wesleyan 19
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Final
at Endicott 28, Rochester 3
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Final
Cortland 31, at TCNJ 7
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Final
at Salisbury 24, UW-Oshkosh 19
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Final
at Franklin Pierce 29, Curry 27
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Final
at Georgetown 69, Catholic 0
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Final
University of New England 35, at Alvernia 28
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Final
Ferrum 55, at Greensboro 7
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Hamilton 37, at Bowdoin 24
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Final
at Amherst 27, Bates 13
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Union 54, at Anna Maria 7
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at Plymouth State 48, Maine Maritime 6
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Wittenberg 36, at Hiram 12
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at Wesleyan 30, Colby 10
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Final
at Wooster 17, Oberlin 0
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at Hanover 49, Adrian 28
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Guilford 19, at Methodist 14
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Final
at Franklin and Marshall 54, Juniata 0
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Susquehanna 28, at Johns Hopkins 27
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Final
Hobart 38, at Morrisville State 24
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at Lycoming 43, Widener 42
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Final
Ripon 45, at Finlandia 12
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Final
Washington and Jefferson 59, at Thiel 0
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Final
at Westminster (Pa.) 45, Waynesburg 21
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Final - 4OT
Wesley 24, at Delaware Valley 18
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Final
at Alfred 15, George Fox 14
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at Wilkes 30, Lebanon Valley 24
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Final
McDaniel 13, at Moravian 10
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Final
Muhlenberg 38, at Dickinson 9
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Final
Ursinus 48, at Gettysburg 10
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Final
at Washington and Lee 42, Sewanee 7
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Final
UW-Whitewater 20, at Concordia-Moorhead 10
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Final
at St. Scholastica 41, Presentation 13
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Final
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 30, at Northwestern (Minn.) 7
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at Tufts 14, Trinity (Conn.) 8
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Final
Ohio Northern 39, at Muskingum 10
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Final
at Hope 80, Defiance 6
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Final
Trine 35, at Bluffton 20
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at Heidelberg 35, Wilmington 10
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at Middlebury 17, Williams 13
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Final
Linfield 35, at Rowan 14
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Final
Baldwin Wallace 45, at Otterbein 28
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Final
Ohio Wesleyan 42, at Kenyon 0
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at Fitchburg State 12, Castleton 10
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at Central 45, DePauw 19
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Final
Millsaps 35, at Westminster (Mo.) 10
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Final
Olivet 54, at Concordia-Chicago 24
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Final
at UW-Stevens Point 31, Wabash 28
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Final
Carleton 20, at Lawrence 10
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Final
at Simpson 27, Chicago 23
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Final
at Greenville 31, Kalamazoo 17
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Final
Concordia (Wis.) 31, at Augsburg 0
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Final
at Martin Luther 34, Rockford 20
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Final
at Lake Forest 44, Grinnell 0
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Final
Bethel 38, at UW-River Falls 20
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Final
at St. Norbert 27, UW-Eau Claire 21
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Final
at Crown 23, Beloit 6
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Final
Aurora 48, at Elmhurst 22
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Final
Howard Payne 56, at McMurry 37
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Final - 2OT
at UW-La Crosse 33, Illinois Wesleyan 27
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Final
at Knox 44, Iowa Wesleyan 0
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Final
at Nebraska Wesleyan 25, Illinois College 20
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Final
Gustavus Adolphus 41, at UW-Stout 31
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Final
at WPI 6, RPI 3
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Final
St. Olaf 33, at Luther 20
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Final
at La Verne 43, Willamette 33
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Final
at Pomona-Pitzer 20, Lewis and Clark 0
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Final
at Pacific Lutheran 17, Cal Lutheran 10
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Final
Hartwick 30, at Alfred State 20
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Final
at Western Connecticut 41, Dean 16
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Final
Alma 35, at Manchester 7
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Final
Randolph-Macon 30, at Averett 27
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Final
Albion 48, at Franklin 26
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Final
at Berry 34, LaGrange 9
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Final
at Anderson 27, Cincinnati Christian 23
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Final - OT
Hampden-Sydney 27, at Christopher Newport 24
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Final
Carnegie Mellon 31, at Geneva 6
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Final
Marietta 44, at Capital 7
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Final
Bridgewater 37, at Stevenson 22
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Final
at Centre 27, Maryville (Tenn.) 22
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Final
at Grove City 26, Bethany 15
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Final
Austin 27, at Southwestern Assemblies 26
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Final
at Loras 42, Benedictine 14
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Final
at Hardin-Simmons 16, Trinity (Texas) 10
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Final
at Dubuque 37, Pacific 26
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Final
at Buena Vista 27, Concordia (Neb.) 24
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Final
at Birmingham-Southern 45, Huntingdon 13
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Final
at Eureka 41, MacMurray 24
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Final
Hendrix 26, at Texas Lutheran 23
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Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 56, Albright 15
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Final
Valley City State 67, at Minnesota-Morris 7
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at Wartburg 38, Monmouth 9
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Final
Rose-Hulman 30, at Rhodes 0
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Final
Hamline 31, at Macalester 27
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Louisiana College 20, at Belhaven 14
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at Texas A&M-Kingsville 72, Sul Ross State 0
Final
at Redlands 58, Puget Sound 7
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Sep. 15: All times Eastern
4th - 15:00
0 Cornell
35 Coe
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Sep. 5: All times Eastern
Final
Johns Hopkins 17, at Randolph-Macon 12
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Sep. 6: All times Eastern
Final
Delaware Valley 37, at Kean 7
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Sep. 7: All times Eastern
Final
at RPI 52, Allegheny 14
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Final
North Central (Ill.) 43, at Christopher Newport 13
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Final
Wesley 69, at Franklin Pierce 0
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Final
at Muhlenberg 45, TCNJ 26
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Final
Ithaca 66, at St. Vincent 28
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Final
at Washington and Jefferson 16, Wittenberg 8
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Final
at John Carroll 21, UW-Stevens Point 7
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Final
Centre 45, at Hanover 31
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Final
Berry 31, at Maryville (Tenn.) 10
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Final
at Bethel 42, Simpson 10
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Final
Wheaton (Ill.) 38, at Monmouth 0
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Final
St. John's 14, at UW-Stout 7
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Final - OT
at UW-La Crosse 21, Concordia-Moorhead 14
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Final
Whitworth 50, at La Verne 24
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Final
at St. Thomas 69, Trinity International 3
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Final
at UW-Whitewater 42, Dubuque 7
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Final
Mount Union 66, at Rose-Hulman 14
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 64, at Sul Ross State 0
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