SAN ANTONIO – In their first home playoff game since 2014, Trinity pieced together two scoring drives in the second half to rally past Hardin-Simmons 14-7 and punch their tickets to the second round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs on Saturday afternoon.
The weather was certainly a factor. With driving rain and 40-degree temperatures hampering Trinity’s high-powered offense throughout the first half, the Tigers fell behind 7-0 in the waning seconds of the second quarter on a seven-yard touchdown run from Noah Garcia. That marked the first time all season Trinity had trailed at halftime.
The second half was a different story.
After a penalty pushed Trinity back to their own eight-yard line on the opening kickoff, the Tigers methodically drove down the field. Senior wide receiver Ryan Merrifield was nearly unstoppable on the drive, converting crucial third- and fourth-down situations. Running back Winston Hutchison capped the 19-play, 92-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 7-7. That one drive burned the first 9:46 of the third quarter.
Both teams then traded big plays and punts until midway through the fourth quarter. Quarterback Tucker Horn once again pieced together a drive featuring a key third-down conversion to Merrifield and a consistent presence from Hutchison that eventually came to a breaking point at the Hardin-Simmons 38-yard line. One 3rd-and-6, Horn dialed up a deep ball for a wide-open Merrifield, who made the grab in stride for a 38-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner. Trinity’s defense was tested on the ensuing drive, but Casey Hampton sealed a remarkable, resilient victory with an interception on the goal line. Merrifield ended the game with six catches for 110 yards and a TD, all in the second half.
“It means everything, just to come out here and advance one more week,” Merrifield said. “We’ve been working all season long. We’ve been working since January 1. We set the goal on the board to win a playoff game, and we just did it today. It’s a team effort.”
“I can’t state enough my love for these guys, their commitment to one another and their unity,” Trinity head coach Jerheme Urban said. “The amount of injuries we’ve had to overcome this year… and people just continue to dig deep. We were going into this game essentially down four starting defensive linemen, and they were giving us everything they could. That was a full team win. Our offensive line grew up a lot today. I’m so proud of them. That 10-minute drive to start the second half set the tone. We weren’t losing this football game.”
Trinity advances to face the defending NCAA Division III National Champions Mary Hardin-Baylor in the second round next Saturday. The Tigers lost to the Crusaders in the first round of last year’s playoffs 13-3.