BELTON — Having been through and having handled the hectic lead-up to last year’s national championship game, Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg was relaxed and talkative Monday morning amid preparation for this week’s Stagg Bowl.
“You can spend your whole life getting to a situation like this and then you have so much to do that you worry, worry, worry. Well, stop worrying and enjoy this opportunity,” he said. “Playing for the national championship is what we’ve wanted to do all year long, and here we go.”
Top-ranked UMHB gets on a plane today headed for Salem, Va., where the defending national champion Crusaders (14-0) will square off with No. 2-ranked and 12-time national champion Mount Union (14-0) in Stagg Bowl XLV on Friday at 6 p.m.
And as relaxed as Fredenburg was, Purple Raiders head coach Vince Kehres sounded equally comfortable at his office in Alliance, Ohio, during Monday’s conference call.
“I think it’s going to be a great football game,” Kehres said. “Mary Hardin-Baylor has been number one all season and deservedly so, and we’ve been up there at two or three all season. I think it makes for a great matchup.”
Mount Union is making its 20th appearance in the NCAA Division III national championship game, and UMHB is making its second straight and third overall.
Last season marked the Crusaders’ first trip to the Stagg Bowl since 2004, and Fredenburg believes last year’s experience will help ease his players’ anxieties.
“Having been there helps you handle the magnitude of it all and puts it back into perspective. It’s going to be just a football game that boils down to guys being prepared to play.”
A rematch, sort of
Last year, the Crusaders posted a 10-3 victory over Wisconsin-Oshkosh to win the title but had to knock off Mount Union in a semifinal in Belton to earn their trip to the Stagg Bowl.
UMHB built a 14-6 lead, denied a 2-point conversion attempt by the Purple Raiders and sealed the outcome with a fourth-quarter interception in last year’s semifinal, which served as motivation throughout the offseason for Mount Union.
“That was a tough game to lose. We felt like we had opportunities to win the game, and we thought it was our best defensive effort of the season,” Kehres said. “We approached the offseason with the goal of trying to correct the issues that were exposed.”
Kehres, however, stopped short of saying last year’s semifinal loss will serve as fuel for his players come Friday night.
“Our focus right now is beating our Week 15 opponent. That happens to be Mary Hardin-Baylor, and they certainly have a great team” he said. “I don’t think (last year) is any extra motivation, though.”
Likewise, Fredenburg doesn’t see many similarities between last year’s semifinal at Crusader Stadium and this year’s title game at Salem Stadium.
“This one is on a bigger stage. It’s the national championship,” he said. “We got to play them here last year, and they will have a formidable following (in Virginia) because they are within driving distance.
“They have been there so many times that the city (of Salem) kind of embraces them. We’ll be the outsiders even though we won it last year.”
The temperature in Salem rarely got above freezing during Stagg Bowl week last year and was in the teens at game time. This week’s forecast calls for highs in the low 40s all week, and that sounds a lot better to the Crusaders.
“When we had our walkthrough on Thursday last year, it was so cold and the wind had such a bite to it that we couldn’t get our guys to get out of the huddle,” Fredenburg said. “They just wanted to huddle up, and I thought, ‘Holy cow. How are we going to win a ballgame like this?’
“It’s supposed to be warmer than that this year.”
Once again, the Stagg Bowl will be televised live nationally on ESPNU.