"Pirates fight for old Southwestern
For your Alma Mater, dear!
Pirates fight for old Southwestern
For Victory is near!"
In the minutes after the Southwestern University Pirates football team defeated the Texas Lutheran University (TLU) Bulldogs on the last day of the season, the players gathered for one more rendition of the fight song.
The fight song, and the tradition of singing it after each victory, are relatively new. The modern iteration of the football program is separated from its past by 63 years, having been disbanded in April of 1951 and returning to the field in September of 2013. The song and the post-victory tradition of singing it came even later.
In that time, there have been more occasions to sing it than not. With the 59-35 route over TLU, the Pirates clinched their third consecutive winning season at 6-4.
"Every year we've had a full football roster, we've had a winning record, including the SCAC championship team; so that's the foundation we're building upon," Head Coach Joe Austin said. "We're not happy with just setting the bar at a winning record but it's a pretty unique thing. Not many programs can say they've had a winning record every year they've had a full football team."
This season, Southwestern began raising that bar along with its national profile, making appearances in several national polls, climbing as high as No. 26 in the BennetRank and ending the season ranked No. 41 by the American Football Coaches Association for Division III football.
The Pirates fielded the third best rushing defense in an American Southwestern Conference (ASC) that boasts powerhouses in Harden-Simmons University and national champions Mary-Hardin Baylor. They wore opponents down with a bruising run-oriented offense capable of chewing up turf and defenses alike.
More importantly, the 2018 Pirates were a team that overcame adversity, recovering from a mid-season skid and injuries to close out the year playing their best football. Dissecting a quality TLU team with surgical precision to keep its winning season streak alive was a remarkable feat for a team that was, at times, a walking MASH unit.
"We had a lot of early season injuries, losing guys in training camp and in the first game," Austin said. "By week three or four, we were missing a lot of key pieces, so we had to regroup and I thought we did a really good job at the end of the season."
The Pirates kicked off the season with an eye-opening 41-21 victory over a Denison University team that would finish 8-3 with a NCAA Playoffs appearance, racking up 418 yards.
After Southwestern opened conference play with a 37-6 victory over McMurry University in Week 2, injuries hit the Pirates hard, especially along the offensive line where senior James Smat was forced to cycle through all five positions, earning him Second Team All-ASC honors.
These injuries, along with inconsistency and turnovers, plagued the Pirates through the toughest portion of their schedule, dropping three consecutive games to East Texas Baptist, Louisiana College, and Mary Hardin-Baylor.
With the team reeling heading into Week 6, Coach Austin challenged quarterback Frederick Hover to be the player on the field. The Pirates bounced back to defeat Sul Ross State 55-7.
"I told Fred during the week, these last five weeks he's got to be our best player," Austin said after the game. "And if he's our best player, we're going to do well."
Austin's words gained even more pertinence the following week when Southwestern lost sophomore running back Kalon Heim with a season-ending injury early in Pirates' 21-10 victory over Belhaven University.
Heim was in the midst of a breakout season, rushing for 687 yards and six touchdowns with eight catches for 176 yards and another touchdown. His ability to make explosive plays out of the backfield added another element to the Pirates' offense and caught opposing coaches' attention, earning Heim Second Team All-ASC honors despite the abbreviated season. His loss could have been devastating.
Instead, Hover responded with a string of monster performances, earning ASC Player of the Week honors on Oct. 14 and Nov. 11, running for 287 yards and three touchdowns against Belhaven and a school-record 443 yards passing and five touchdowns with 139 yards rushing and another touchdown against TLU.
Hover also accounted for seven touchdowns in a 54-17 victory over Howard Payne University, running for 120 yards and four touchdowns and throwing for 326 yards and three touchdowns to bounce back from a 35-49 loss to then No. 9-ranked Hardin-Simmons.
His performance against TLU was the fourth most total offense generated by an individual in NCAA Division III this season and his 287 yards rushing were the 11th most.
After leading the Pirates with 947 yards rushing and 2,012 yards passing, throwing for 19 touchdowns and running for 16, Hover will graduate this spring as the school's all-time leader in rushing yards (2,661), rushing attempts (756), rushing touchdowns (35), rushing yards per game (88.7), passing efficiency (154.5), completion percentage (58.1 percent), yards per pass (9.0), total offense (7,140 yards), touchdowns responsible for (74), total offense per game (238.0), all-purpose yards (2,712), points scored (216) and touchdowns scored (36).
"He played at an All-American level at the end of the year, doing everything we needed from him and the stats show it," Austin said. "He is the elite of the elite. He did the job of a running back and a quarterback at the same time."
Though Hover won't always be around to direct the Pirates' offense, the harmony found in their victory song has always been a group effort. This season may have been the most difficult of its winning seasons, it perhaps offered the best glimpse of sustainability with a "next man up," attitude dealing with injuries and a young defense that improved throughout the season.
The Pirates finished first in the ASC in red zone defense and third in rushing defense, holding opponents to just 92.6 rushing yards per game. Aaron Robinson finished second in the ASC in solo tackles with 48 and recorded the school's longest interception return with a 65-yard return for a touchdown against TLU.
"We're building around being a really good run defense and we've got a lot of pieces coming back," Austin said. "Aaron Robinson got Second Team All-ASC but has first team talent and we have other guys in Hayden Smith and Ben Brockman who got honorable mention, as well as a few others who could have been in that group.
"We're in a conference with some elite defenses in Mary Harden-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons, so we're just going to have to keep working, building our strength and skills. Luckily, they're all back next year so I'm sure they'll be hungry to show they're among the elite players in our league."
In the early 1940s, Southwestern football gained fleeting national relevance when a military training program on campus gave the school access to some of the game's most talented young men.
The modern iteration, under the direction of Coach Austin, appears to be building on sturdier foundations, winning a conference championship in the SCAC and maintaining its competitiveness moving into the tougher ASC.
Wins against Denison and TLU show how far the program has come, with each opponent breaking almost entirely from their traditional game plans to deal with Southwestern. A loss to Hardin-Simmons shows both how narrow the margin for error is to compete against a top 10 team and how close it is within the Pirates' grasp.
The Pirates will lose a few All-ASC players on offense to graduation but should return talented playmakers, including Heim, along with a defense that should become more formidable with another year of experience.
"We're entering a new era for our football team, starting to make appearances in the national polls," Austin said. "I think when we entered the national rankings, it took a little bit of our focus. But we're a top 20 percent football team."
Though the season is over, echoes of the victorious fight song persist.
"'Til the sun falls from the skies
Remembering until the end,
Pirate Fight Never Dies."