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Huntingdon College’s football team won nine games this season. The lone loss was a seven-point setback to a team that is ranked No. 4 in the country and is one of the top four seeds in the NCAA Division III playoffs.

The reward for the successful season was a first-round road trip to play the defending national champions.

“They served it right up to us, didn’t they?” Huntingdon head coach Mike Turk said with a laugh.

What’s that they say about to be the best you have to play the best? Huntingdon will try to make that reality on Saturday as they play at a Mary Hardin-Baylor team that not only won the title last year but is one of the most consistent Division III programs in the country.

Turk, who has taken teams into Crusader Stadium in Belton, Texas in the past, was asked what makes playing there so difficult.

“They’re just really good, man, it wouldn’t matter where you played them,” Turk said. “As long as they were able to bring all the guys they’ve got on the team, they’re going to be hard to deal with.”

Huntingdon is one of 240 institutions that field a Division III football team and only 32 of those make the playoffs. Turk said it’s a blessing for his program to make the field for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. As champions of the USA South Conference, the Hawks got an automatic berth into the playoffs. Turk thought his team might have an opportunity to get one of the 16 home games.

“You never know how you’re viewed,” Turk said. “I felt like our resume was pretty solid. That being said, I also know the real world and the world of Division III especially. I knew from looking at the landscape, who was going to get in. Three [playoff] schools in Texas and us are all pretty isolated. The committee looks at that and tries to do as good a job of scheduling the first-round games on a regional basis as they can. The fact that there were three schools out there and then us, it made perfect sense, to me, to lump us in with them. I was not surprised, at all, that we drew the defending champs in the first round.”

His focus turned quickly to figuring out ways to attack a team that outscored 10 opponents by a combined 445-146. Unfortunately, game film didn’t come up with a solution.

“When you watch them on film, they don’t scream, hey, do this to us because we don’t like it,” Turk said.

Turk said the Crusaders give big plays so grudgingly that the only one spotted, in the three games he studied, was a long pass that bounced off a Mary Hardin-Baylor player’s helmet and into the opposing receiver’s hands in the end zone.

Did he ever think about putting that play in the game plan?

“We practiced it last night, actually, didn’t go too well,” Turk said with another laugh.

The coaching returned to a more conventional approach but it will still be a huge challenge.

“Personnel-wise, there is no weakness that you see that just jumps out at you,” Turk said. “Typically, no matter who you are playing, you see a guy or two that you might be able to pick on. That’s part of the fun of coming up with a game plan. When you play these guys, man, you don’t see any weaknesses. They are really good.”

Huntingdon’s defense is without linebacker Casey Peppers, the team’s defensive leader, who is out for the season with a knee injury suffered about three weeks ago. His replacement, Martin Toby, stepped in and the defense hasn’t missed a beat. On offense, the Hawks follow all-conference quarterback Landon Cotney, who has accounted for 2,775 yards and 30 touchdowns.

“He’s certainly the heart and soul of our offense and, probably, you could make the statement that he’s the heartbeat of the football team,” Turk said of Cotney, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior. “I think our kids, across the board, offensively and defensively, believe in him and believe in his toughness and believe in his ability. As long as he’s behind the center, our guys think they have a chance to win. That goes a long way. It’s hard to do it without one of those guys, especially in today’s game.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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