|Mary Hardin-Baylor, including seniors Markeith Miller, Santos Villarreal, Reggie Cole and Raylon Hickey, take the field before Stagg Bowl XLVI.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
SHENANDOAH, Texas – A year ago, T.J. Josey was in pain.
He was hurting physically, and also emotionally. He wanted nothing more than to be on the field with his brothers. But after three plays in Stagg Bowl XLV, Josey was injured and forced to spend the rest of the game on the sideline, watching his Mary Hardin-Baylor teammates struggle mightily on offense. The Crusaders could not muster a single point against Mount Union.
- Full 2018 playoff coverage
- Game story: Cru takes two for Texas
- Podcast 233: Stagg Bowl recap; our postseason awards
- Final D3football.com Top 25
A year later, Josey opened the scoring for the Cru (15-0), hauling in a touchdown pass from Jase Hammack to cut UMHB’s deficit to 10-7. That score energized the team playing in front of a raucous home crowd in Shenandoah, Texas. This Friday night was a completely different result, as Josey and his teammates hoisted the Walnut and Bronze trophy by defeating Mount Union, 24-16.
“I had a lot of emotion coming into this game. Last year, I felt that I let our guys down, and felt that I could have made a difference in that game,” said Josey. “I just wanted to come out and be the guy that made the difference.”
It was the culmination of the careers of several Mary Hardin-Baylor seniors who redefined the program. They contributed to UMHB’s first national championship as sophomores in 2016, then went out on top as seniors. They played in three straight Stagg Bowls and redeemed their loss from 2017 by defeating the Purple Raiders (14-1) this year. Leaders such as Josey, Markeith Miller, and Raylon Hickey saw their roles grow and evolve during this run.
“A lot of those guys played all three years. T.J. Josey, Markeith Miller, we got familiar with those guys,” said Mount Union linebacker Danny Robinson. “They’re great athletes and they got better each year. They made more plays than us [last night] and they made us not make plays.”
The standard of success has been transformed by this class. They aspired to be the first Cru team to win it all, and reached that pinnacle in Stagg Bowl XLIV. That wasn’t a relief; it was only more motivation to make it the new normal.
“Winning it in 2016 was a moment I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” said Josey. “Having to watch another team celebrate on the field last year where we had celebrated the year before was a bad feeling. We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t have to feel that feeling again.”
“We felt like we could play with Mount Union. We felt like our team was a team of destiny.”
– Pete Fredenburg, UMHB head coach
So, after falling behind 10-0 on Friday night, the Crusaders remained calm. Their big game experience played a big role in their resilience.
“We always felt like when you get into a game like this with this much significance, the big key thing is to maintain the confidence level you have and don’t panic. Everything’s going to take care of itself,” said Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg. “We felt like we could play with Mount Union. We felt like our team was a team of destiny.”
It’s debatable whether or not this is the most talented UMHB class, but it is without a doubt the most successful. While prior classes had standout players and put the program on the map as a national contender, they were unable to breakthrough to claim a championship. Those classes--many members of the 2004 Stagg Bowl team were in attendance Friday night--set the stage for the class of 2019 to make history.
“We were the first ones to win it,” said Josey. “We definitely couldn’t do it without the guys who came before us. We wouldn’t be here in the place we are without those guys.”
The maturation of Josey and Miller into leaders was crucial as the Cru welcomed big-time transfers into the program. Quarterbacks Jase Hammack and Luke Poorman and wide receiver K.J. Miller played important roles this season. Hammack and Miller connected on what ended up being the deciding touchdown Friday night. Neither player was on campus a year ago.
“Jase transferring in and K.J. transferring in really gave us a shot in the arm,” said Fredenburg. “But you have to develop a chemistry and that’s what we accomplished with the leadership that we have on our team. That’s what made the difference in my opinion.”
Hammack emerged as the starting quarterback, passing for 18 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards. Miller led the team in receptions and was second behind Josey in receiving yards, while also serving as the top kick and punt returner. The veterans who set the championship standard welcomed their new teammates with open arms and quickly let them know what the expectations were within the Cru football program.
“It was an honor to play with those guys because as soon as I came in, they treated me like family,” said Miller. “It feels great to be here and play with people who love football just as much as you.”
After the 2004 breakthrough, it took Fredenburg a dozen years to make it back to the Stagg Bowl. Now, his program has appeared in three straight, with no signs of slowing down. While the 2018 team relied on leaders such as Josey and Markeith Miller, the program is built to sustain longevity at the top. It’s similar to the opponent the Crusaders have faced in the past two Stagg Bowls, the program that Fredenburg (and most other coaches in Division III) has modeled his after.
“They’ve got great players and they’re well-coached,” said Mount Union coach Vince Kehres. “That’s a good formula.”
The Cru earned redemption on Friday night, and now another group of UMHB players knows what it feels like to be a champion.
“After the loss last year, our expectations were to win a national championship. It’s been the goal since fall camp to get here and have another shot at Mount Union because of the way last year ended,” said Fredenburg. “It’s been incredible to watch this team grow and develop, the maturation of guys that were in a backup role last year all of a sudden become big time players, it’s just been awesome. There’s been some adversity but we have just kept driving and working.”