BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor makes no bones about it and hasn’t for a decade or so.
The Crusaders’ goal isn’t to simply make the NCAA Division III playoffs or even make a run in the postseason. They desperately want to win their first national championship. Nothing less.
The next obstacle on that quest will be the tallest yet as No. 2-ranked UMHB clashes with streaking St. John Fisher (N.Y.) in a national quarterfinal at noon today at Crusader Stadium.
The Crusaders (12-0) are one win away from reaching the semifinals for the fifth time in program history and the second time in as many years, but they’re not about to get caught looking head.
“Our focus all year has been about getting better each week,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “We’re just continuing to grow and move along. We’ve improved. There’s no question about that.”
The unranked Cardinals (10-2) have won five straight since suffering back-to-back losses in late October and went on the road to knock off No. 11 John Carroll (Ohio) and No. 7 Hobart (N.Y.) in the playoffs’ first two rounds.
“Coming into the year, we knew that Mary Hardin-Baylor would be up there,” said Paul Vosburgh, who’s in his 23rd season as head coach at St. John Fisher.
“But we didn’t have any idea that we would be here, too.”
The Cardinals — whose two losses were 42-35 to Salisbury (Md.) and 25-22 to playoff qualifier Ithaca (N.Y.) — get the bulk of their offensive production through the air and are more dynamic than Rowan (N.J.), which was overwhelmed by UMHB in the second round last week.
“They run a little more of the read option, and the quarterback throws it a little better than Rowan did,” Fredenburg said. “They have a little more firepower.”
St. John Fisher senior quarterback Tyler Fenti has thrown for 2,804 yards and 23 touchdowns after finally getting on the field. He missed his freshman season with a ruptured spleen, his sophomore year with a broken hand and spent last season as a backup.
“This is really his first full season of playing since his senior year of high school,” Vosburgh said.
When the Cardinals keep it on the ground, they’ll turn to 220-pound senior running back Cody Miller — who has rushed for 1,066 yards and 16 scores — and an offensive line that averages 286 pounds per man.
“Cody is a banger, not a pretty runner,” Vosburgh said. “He’s not a dancer.”
Miller will try to find room to run against a UMHB defense that ranks second in the country against the rush (62.9 yards per game), ninth overall (258.9) and seventh in points allowed (12.3).
“I think our offense is similar to Mary Hardin-Baylor,” Vosburgh said. “We like to try to score some points.”
Scoring points is something the Crusaders have done in prolific fashion this season, averaging 49.3 per game — the second-best total in the nation.
Today, UMHB will face a defensive scheme it doesn’t see very frequently — a 3-3-5 similar to what former conference foe McMurry used to employ.
“St. John Fisher really likes to stunt and move around a lot,” Fredenburg said. “They roll people and it’s all about trying to stunt people and run them through gaps and stuff.
“That kind of defense can cause some issues, and it has for us in the past.”
NOTES: The Cardinals give up an average of 19.2 points per game and rank 54th nationally in total defense. . . . Today’s forecast calls for cold but likely dry conditions, with a temperature that hovers around the freezing mark throughout the game. ... The winner will face either No. 3 Linfield (Ore.) or No. 5 Wisconsin-Whitewater in next week’s semifinal round. ... UMHB receiver Marcus Wimby and defensive end Korey Steward are expected to start today after missing action because of injuries.