Michael Hnatkowsky passed his first football test at Muhlenberg College as a freshman in preseason camp. He didn’t know anyone. There were 12-hour days in which, at times, he felt he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into.

When Hnatkowsky survived that first week, he knew he belonged. Living in Philly had taught him that.

“Things aren’t going to always be easy, and being from Philly, you understand that,” Hnatkowsky said. “The day-by-day mentality is something I try to embrace everyday.”

Hnatkowsky has survived three years now and is leading Muhlenberg College (13-0) to one of its greatest seasons. The Mules will host North Central College (11-1) on Saturday at noon (ESPN3) in an NCAA Division III semifinal.

This moment has been a long time coming for Hnatkowsky. He starred at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia and threw for 6,172 yards and 60 touchdowns, breaking Matt Ryan’s school records.

But that wasn’t enough, initially. Hnatkowsky was beaten out in preseason camp his freshman season. Despite his video-game numbers in high school, he was forced to sit and watch, something he had never done as a four-year starter in high school.

“It really humbled me,” Hnatkowsky said. “It kept me working really hard. I think it’s part of the reason I am where I am right now.”

Michael Hnatkowsky looks to pass for Penn Charter during a 2014 game.
LOU RABITO / Staff
Michael Hnatkowsky looks to pass for Penn Charter during a 2014 game.

The benching didn’t last long. Muhlenberg coach Nate Milne knew how good Hnatkowsky was the moment he recruited him. Hnatkowsky started the final eight games of his freshman season and left his mark. He ranked third among NCAA Division III freshman quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdowns.

Hnatkowsky was back to his record-breaking ways his sophomore season. He broke the Muhlenberg record for passing yards (3,101) and touchdowns (31) in a season.

He led the Mules to a 17-4 record through two seasons, but then he had to realize that he has two things: freedom and trust.

Milne constantly emphasizes to Hnatkowsky that he has more freedom in the offense than he uses. Milne’s trust in the junior quarterback has led to a 13-0 record and Hnatkowsky’s throwing 45 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. He leads junior QBs in all four major divisions with 96 career touchdown passes.

“He controls everything at the line of scrimmage for us,” Milne said. “When you have skill players and a quarterback like we do, it really alleviates that pressure and you just let your team go out there and play.”

Hnatkowsky strikes his teammates as more of a leader by example. He takes pride in both the athletic and academic side of things, and he’s not the in-your-face type of guy.

His adjustment to preseason camp lasted about a week, but he says that phase in academics is an ongoing process, because “it’s college.”

“I wanted a fit that was similar to Charter, and that was Muhlenberg,” Hnatkowsky said. “That combination of academics and football just stuck with me.”

The Mules offense has scored 31 or more points in 11 of the team’s 13 games, and will be challenged by a dominant North Central College team. The Cardinals knocked off powerhouse Mount Union in a 59-52 upset two weeks earlier.

It‘ll be the first time Muhlenberg has hosted a semifinal playoff game. The winner will advance to play in the Stagg Bowl for the D-III championship Dec. 20 in Shenandoah, Texas.

The semifinal is going to be one of those games in which key players will have to rise in big moments, and Hnatkowsky hasn’t been a stranger to that.

“He’s a flat-out assassin,” Milne said. “He lives to compete out there Saturday against the very best.”