Cove alumni, past UMHB Cru standouts reflect on national victory
By LYNETTE SOWELL
A rematch one year in the making ended with the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders emerging victorious as NCAA Division III champions on Friday night, beating the Mount Union Purple Raiders, 24-16 in the 46th annual Stagg Bowl at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, just north of Houston.
The national championship win was a sweet victory for the Crusaders, who made it to the finals last year but fell to the Raiders, 12-0. Friday night’s game was the fifth time the two teams played each other and was the tiebreaker of the 2-2 matchup.
The Purple Raiders traveled to Texas from Alliance, Ohio, for Friday night’s game and brought a 29-game winning streak with them.
Along with that streak, the Purple Raiders hold the NCAA record for being the winningest college football team in a playoff format, with 13 national titles. Only Notre Dame, with 11 titles, has the most titles for a team in a non-playoff format.
The last time the Purple Raiders lost was in the 2016 NCAA Division III semifinals, falling to UMHB.
Prior to the game, both home (UMHB) and visitor (Mount Union) ticketholders were granted access to a tailgate party sponsored by the city of Shenandoah, with food and drink from local businesses, live entertainment, and the chance to take photographs with longhorn cattle.
Thousands of alumni and fans from Central Texas and beyond made the trek to Shenandoah to witness the action.
Two Copperas Cove and UMHB alumni, Kevin Wilburn and Josh Welch, also headed to Shenandoah to watch their team take to the field. Both men know firsthand the same stakes that the current players knew going into Friday night’s game.
Wilburn played for UMHB from 1998-2001 and made his mark on the record books as a kicker, with his record of 78.6 percent field goals still in the top five for UMHB. During the 2000-2001 season, Wilburn made USAFootball.com’s All-American Team and also made the First Team in 2000 for the All-American Southwest Conference.
A jubilant Wilburn shared his excitement immediately after the game.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” Wilburn said. “I’m ecstatic; I’m so happy for those players on the field, to get another national championship. All the hard work, I couldn’t be more excited as an alumni.”
Both the chilly temperatures in the upper 40s and the wind were factors in Friday’s game that the players had to deal with.
Wilburn talked about the wind and the cold affecting players on the field, particularly the kicker.
“I think the wind would have been a big-time challenge. You have to take into consideration which way the wind’s blowing, how to test your aims,” Wilburn said. “The cold, if you’re playing in it, you get used to it. I think you’ve got more emotions going through, so you’re not really thinking about the cold.”
Some fans weren’t alumni of the university, but showed their team spirit via their family connections, like Mike and Pam Wilburn, Kevin’s parents, who also attended the game and proudly displayed the Cru purple and gold.
Mike Wilburn is a graduate of both Southwest Texas State University and Tarleton State. Pam is a Baylor University alum.
“He’s our connection to UMHB. We’ve been all three years, and the last two years we went to Salem, Virginia, to watch the final,” said Mike.
Another Copperas Cove and UMHB alum, Josh Welch, made sure he was at the game on Friday night to see his former team push to victory.
Welch was quarterback for the Cru during the 2004-2007 seasons. Welch had a career-high 56 touchdown passes in his four years as quarterback, and made the All-ASC awards list from 2005-2007.
For the two seasons prior to Welch joining the team, the Crusaders made it to the playoffs but didn’t make it past the first round.
“Once we made that run my freshman year, they’ve been contenders pretty much every year since then,” Welch said. “it’s exciting to see the success UMHB has had over the years, that you were able to take part in some of it. Years ago, just to see how the team has continually grown and built since I was there. It just seems like every year we watch them, they just get bigger and faster and more athletic, and just more dominant. It’s pretty incredible to think of where we were back then. We were pretty competitive. But they’ve only lost one game now in the last three years. That’s pretty incredible.”
Crusaders head coach Pete Fredenburg was also Welch’s coach when he played for the Crusaders. Welch talked about Fredenburg’s standards as a coach leading to the success the team has had over the years.
“It’s building an atmosphere and building a group of guys who come to work, come to work hard each and every day, and an atmosphere of wanting to be great and striving, and understanding what it takes to get there.
“There’s the code of the Cru that they started back with the very first football team, that helped start the program that still is very much alive and well there today. It’s up there in the locker room still. You watch them over the years, they have the same foundation of the program that’s been there since the start, but Pete and the staff have done great job, growing and building and adapting.”
Welch, as a spectator, found himself feeling some nerves when the Crusaders were behind the Raiders, especially during the first quarter.
“I was more nervous in the first quarter, when we were down by 10. You get nervous up in the stands, watching the game,” Welch said. “Of course, the kids and the coaching staff never panic. They have a game plan, stuck to it, and did a good job. It’s a bit different up there watching the game versus when you were playing.
“There were times, when we played Mount Union my freshman year, when we were down 14 in the 4th quarter and we ended up beating them. That was the first time we played them and ended up playing in the national title game my freshman year. We never panicked, but there were probably people up in the stands that were.”
He saw the moves that the Cru made, that won them the title with a strong 4th quarter by the team. “The defense shut them down and the offense made some big plays and won the game.”