On a late Friday afternoon, a full moon rose into the Texas sky just beyond the football practice field at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
With the December temperature still above 60, St. Thomas held a walk-through practice in preparation for Saturday's Star Bowl 2017. The North stars, aka 11-1 St. Thomas Tommies, have a noon kickoff against the Lone stars, aka the 12-0 Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders, in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals.
A St. Thomas student manager wore shorts, and one defensive player wore sandals without socks. Call it "Casual Friday," with the Tommies staying loose, saving their energy for game day.
St. Thomas will have its hands full against athletic, hard-nosed Mary Hardin-Baylor and its 27-game victory streak.
This Tommie group is playing far from home and faces a No. 1-ranked team that last lost a game in December 2015.
This opponent is flying a national championship banner that's just 11 months old, and has allowed just 51 points in its last six postseason contests.
And the Crusaders have 162 of their 171 players who are native Texans. It's our guys who watched the epic TV show Friday Night Lights, facing the guys who lived it.
Does Mary Hardin-Baylor have some tough dudes? Consider that a large statue outside of its football building features a heavy sword pushed into a rock.
But in year 10 of the Caruso era, St. Thomas has been here (figuratively) before. Competitive football programs, in win-or-walk December scenarios, want to play the best and see how they measure up. And the St. Thomas players know they have not yet played a complete, 60-minute game, so what better time than today?
Many feel this showdown will be the marquee of Division III's four quarterfinal games being played Saturday from Oshkosh, Wis, to Doylestown, Pa., to Alliance, Ohio, to here in Central Texas.
One of this game's fascinating layers involves the head coaches, who share similarities and differences. You can call it Old School... vs. Really Old School.
Representing Old School is Glenn Caruso, who turned 42 last May. The Connecticut native played football at Ithaca (N.Y.) College. He's never coached in high school or D-I football, but boasts more than two decades of experience in Division II and III programs in New York, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. He has worked primarily on the offensive side where he has a national reputation for excellence.
Glenn has won 87 percent of his games at St. Thomas in 10 seasons since his January 2008 hiring. He came from a Division III school 10 blocks down the street, and went on to guide St. Thomas to two Stagg Bowl appearances and seven total quarterfinal-round playoff games in the last nine years. He's won National Coach of the Year awards by the American Football Coaches' Association, American Football Monthly magazine, and Liberty Mutual.
Representing Really Old School is Mary Hardin-Baylor's Pete Fredenburg, who turned 68 earlier this fall. The Texas native played football at Southwest Texas State and started by coaching high school football at three Texas stops. He later was a 17-year Division I assistant, including 13 years nearby at Baylor University and short stops after that at Louisiana State and Louisiana Tech. He's coached mostly on the defensive side and worked with teams that played in the Cotton, Sun, Bluebonnet, LIberty and Copper Bowls. He's coached 20 players who went on to play in the NFL
Fredenburg has lived or worked in either Texas or Louisiana his whole life. Have you heard of the hit TV show, "Fixer Upper," filmed a short drive from here near Waco, Texas? They could do a show with Pete and call it "Buildin' from Scratch," as that's what he did here when he came home to the Waco area. He was Mary Hardin-Baylor's first football coach (1998 inaugural season). He's finishing his 20th season, with two Stagg Bowl appearance and has won 84 percent of his games (208-38 record). Along with Mount Union, MHB has won at least one football playoff game for 14 consecutive years.
Fredenburg has won National Coach of the Year awards by the American Football Coaches' Association, American Football Monthly magazine, and Liberty Mutual.
Because the innovative Caruso loves offensive balance, he never jumped on the spread offense train like many of his peers. He doesn't do everything by the book, though, as evidenced by his aggressive fourth-down approach and special-teams creativity.
That's a bit of a contrast to the veteran Fredenburg, an old defensive coach. With this gentleman, what you see is what you get. He seems to rely on his defense as his first weapon, and is comfortable kicking field goals to help build his lead.
A deep dive into the stats and notes reveals a few items worth watching as we await Saturday's kickoff:
Roster: MHB's 25 starters on offense, defense and special teams include 24 Texas natives (a Californian starts at defensive end). By comparison, half of the Tommies' top 25 starters on offense, defense and kicking game are Minnesotans, with another large group from both Illinois and Wisconsin, plus Arizonan Michael Franzese.
Risk Reward?: MHB has only left its offense on the field on fourth down 16 times in 12 games (twice so far in the postseason). The Tommies have had 58 fourth-down conversion tries in their 12 games.
Special Teams: The Crusaders have not allowed a blocked kick or punt this season, and have three kick blocks of their own. They have four return touchdowns and have not allowed any kick or punt returns to the end zone. The Toms have had three kicks or punts blocked, with three blocks of their own. They have five return touchdowns and have allowed just one to the end zone.
Red Zone For: The Crusaders have made 49 trips inside their red zone and came away with points 40 times (28 TDs, 12 field goals). UST has 71 trips inside the red zone with 59 scores (54 touchdowns, five field goals).
Red Zone Against: The Crusaders have allowed 12 opponents just 20 trips inside their red zone. Only seven of those resulted in TDs and five resulted in MHB takeaways. UST has only allowed 18 drives inside its 20, with 10 TDs and two field goals given up.
Weather: The high temperatures could reach 77 with light winds under sunny skies here on Saturday. But with dew points near 50, no Tommie disadvantage. Don't forget that the Tommie-Johnnie slugfest 10 weeks ago at Target Field before a record crowd of 37,355 was played on a muggy day where the temperatures soared into the upper 80s.
St. Thomas' home radio play-by-play man Dave Lee is on the PUP list this weekend -- Physically Unable to Pronounce. He is sidelined with a sore throat. Sliding into his chair will be Eric Nelson, with Fritz Waldvogel moving from the sideline to the color role.
If there's any doubt whether the Good Neighbor's Mr. Nelson can deliver in the Good Karma department, note that the last Tommie football game he worked play by play was 25 years ago when he called a 1992 Midwest Sports Channel TV game from O'Shaughnessy Stadium. St. Thomas started a freshman QB, Ryan Davis, and was perhaps a 50-point underdog against archrival St. John's... yet St. Thomas won 15-12.
Hey Eric, no pressure to produce a similar stunner.
Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.
If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at [email protected]