UMHB Notebook

Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Kenneth Cormier Jr. (5) runs through a tackle by Bethel’s Nate Farm (21) on Saturday in Belton.

BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor is in the NCAA Division III semifinals for the third time in four seasons, in part because of its fourth-quarter performances the past two weeks.

And with a dogfight expected when No. 3 UMHB (12-1) and No. 1 North Central (13-0) meet Saturday in Naperville, Ill., the Crusaders know their effort in crunch time could be the difference in whether they stay on track to defend their national title.

“Our guys have a tremendous amount of belief in each other and really care about each other. We have a bunch of great teammates on this team,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said. “When games get a little tight, instead of complaining and pointing fingers, there’s just confidence and belief in each other.

“We have a bunch of playmakers on this team, and each and every one of them is saying, ‘Man, I hope the play comes my way. I’m ready to make the play.’”

On the road two weeks ago against No. 5 Trinity, the Crusaders turned back the Tigers’ comeback attempt.

Trinity rallied from a 24-7 deficit to get within a touchdown and was driving for the tying score when it reached the UMHB 25-yard line in the final half-minute. From there, the Crusaders got a 14-yard sack from Tristan Green, forced an incompletion and closed out the second-round win with Dorian Pittman’s sack on the last play.

“That defensive side of the ball is where we had a lot of inexperience and a lot of youth coming into the season,” Harmon said. “We’re now in Week 14, so they’ve played a lot more and gotten a lot of game experience.

“We get better each week. Sundays aren’t fun here. No matter if we win by 60 or win by three, it’s the same around here on Sundays. We’re being very critical because when you get to games like this one coming up, one mistake can cost you the entire game.”

In last week’s quarterfinal at home against No. 20 Bethel, the Crusaders trailed 28-17 a minute into the fourth quarter before scoring 24 unanswered points to prevail.

Kyle King’s pass that KJ Miller turned into a 65-yard touchdown sparked the scoring surge that included TD runs by Kenneth Cormier and Aphonso Thomas and a 36-yard field goal from Anthony Avila.

“You have to hold the course and believe that you have athletes who are well-coached and are going to make a play,” Harmon said. “I can’t stress this enough, there was never a time when our guys thought we weren’t going to win that game.

“I told (offensive coordinator Andy Padron), ‘We need to score quick.’ He went to Kyle and said, ‘We have to score quick.’ The next play went to the house. That’s what can happen when we get the ball to our guys who can do that.”

So many games

Because the pandemic forced the cancelation of the 2020 Division III season, the majority of teams across the country have played only 20 games since the end of 2019.

UMHB, on the other hand, will tee it up Saturday for the 34th time in that same span. That includes a five-game schedule in the spring of 2021, last season’s 15-game run to the national title and this year’s 13-game jaunt to reach the semifinals.

“The love that our kids have for the game, for each other, for the coaching staff, for this university, they’re a very special group. This is a special time,” Harmon said. “These guys love to compete and want to be the first group in this program to win back-to-back national championships.

“That’s the goal this team has had the whole time. They want to stack national championships. It’s been a long season, and we’re getting closer to that. Our guys know we have a really tough matchup with North Central to make that a reality, but we’re really excited about the opportunity and looking forward to playing the game on Saturday.”

In charge

After serving as the defensive coordinator for all the previous lengthy postseason runs in UMHB’s history, Harmon is learning some things on the fly as the playoffs continue in his first year as a head coach.

“It’s a lot different for me. I was never involved in itineraries and planes and all of the planning and dealing with the media,” said Harmon, who was named the Division III Region 3 coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association. “It’s a great challenge. It’s getting me out of my comfort zone and making me grow as a coach. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.”

Looking ahead

Saturday’s winner in Naperville — about 30 miles outside of Chicago — will face No. 2 Mount Union (13-0) or No. 12 Wartburg (13-0) in the national championship game.

The 49th edition of the Stagg Bowl will be played Dec. 16 at 6 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

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