BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor’s matchup for the first round of the playoffs came as no surprise upon its announcement Sunday evening.
It’s the Crusaders’ path to the national semifinals that is shockingly refreshing.
Second-ranked UMHB will host Redlands (Calif.) at noon Saturday at Crusader Stadium in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, marking the Crusaders’ 10th consecutive postseason appearance.
The two teams’ geographic isolation among the playoff field made the matchup a logical and anticipated fit. However, the rest of UMHB’s eight-team portion of the bracket — in which the Crusaders are the top seed — is filled with programs UMHB has never faced in the 16-year history of its program.
“It’s a totally different bracket for us, and that’s cool,” Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said. “I like it.”
Fredenburg’s players reacted similarly but added that they aren’t looking ahead.
“It’s exciting to be bunched with those other teams, but it’s not about them. It’s about us,” said Brodrick Crain, a senior cornerback out of Belton. “We have to make sure that every week we come ready to practice and prepare like it’s the national championship game, whether it’s the first round or the fifth round.”
The UMHB-Redlands winner will face either Rowan (8-2) out of New Jersey or Endicott (8-2) from Massachusetts in the second round. The other half of UMHB’s bracket features No. 7 Hobart (9-0) and St. John Fisher (8-2) out of New York, No. 9 John Carroll (9-1) from Ohio and No. 25 Gallaudet (9-1) from Washington, D.C.
Top-ranked and defending national champion Mount Union (Ohio) is the top overall seed in the 32-team field. If the Crusaders keep winning, their semifinal matchup would be with the winner of the bracket headed by No. 5 Wisconsin-Whitewater — an eight-team grouping that also includes No. 3 Linfield (Ore.).
UMHB’s first-round game is a rematch of the season opener — a 31-13 Crusaders win — and a 2011 first-round clash, also won by the Crusaders 34-13.
“Of course they’re going to be better now,” Crain said of the Bulldogs. “They’re a much-improved team, just like we are.
“It’s no different than any other week. We’re going to study them, get prepared and get things rolling.”
One thing is for sure, though. There will be no early round matchup between UMHB and perennial nemesis Wesley (Del.). The two teams had met in the playoffs seven of the last eight years and in the last two regular seasons.
This year, however, the Wolverines were placed in Mount Union’s portion of the bracket.
“It’s awfully hard to beat somebody twice,” Fredenburg said. “What I was concerned about was having to beat Redlands a second time, then turning around and having to beat Wesley a second time.
“But Redlands has good coaches, so I’m sure they’ve improved dramatically. We at least have some knowledge of them, though.”
The playoffs will culminate with the national championship game — the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, to be played Dec. 20 at 6 p.m. in Salem, Va.