Each year, the "Battle of the Piney Woods" rivalry game at Reliant Stadium in Houston between Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin just gets bigger and bigger.
In 2010, 24,685 fans packed the lower bowl at Reliant Stadium.
Last year, spectators literally flipped over the "Piney Woods" game as the "Flanders Flip" -- Timothy Flander's touchdown play in the second half -- earned the game national TV coverage. A total of 25,145 spectators saw the Bearkats roll over the Lumberjacks 45-10 on their way to a 14-0 run to the NCAA Division I national championship game.
This year, with the Texas Aggies' exodus from the Big 12 to the SEC, the Bearkat-Lumberjack rivalry has become the fourth oldest continuous college football rivalry in the state.
Sam Houston and SFA will meet for the 87th renewal of the series on Saturday October 6 at 3 p.m.
From the tailgate party in the parking lot to the solid sea orange and purple filling Reliant's lower bowl to cheer for their favorite team the "Battle of the Piney Woods" is an event was one to remember.
This year's "Battle" marks the third event in a four-year partnership between the two schools and Lone Star Sports and Entertainment (LSSE).
"We are extremely excited to join forces with YP.com to continue bringing this great rivalry to Reliant Stadium," said Lone Star Sports & Entertainment general manager Heather Houston. "The Battle of the Piney Woods is one of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in Texas, and playing the game at a neutral site has made it a must-see event for fans of both schools."
The Bearkats versus Lumberjacks series dates back to 1923. Sam Houston State holds a 49-35-2 edge in the series. For players and fans alike, the thrill of playing at the home of the NFL's Houston Texans is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"Having the opportunity to play in an NFL arena is just tremendous," Sam Houston senior safety Kenneth Jenkins from Galveston said. "Both our teams have so many Houston area alumni and students, Reliant Stadium is the perfect setting for this rivalry. Last year's crowd at Reliant was so loud, it was just a tremendous atmosphere."
For members of both football teams, the aspect of both the two previous SHSU-SFA showdowns at Reliant that stands out occurred when the team took the field just before kickoff.
"What fired us up more than anything is when we come out of the locker room and find all those former Bearkat football players forming a human tunnel to welcome us onto the Reliant Stadium field," SHSU senior offensive lineman Kaleb Hopson of Early said. "Wow, that was so exciting."
During the 1930s, "The Battle of the Piney Woods" was an annual Thanksgiving Day football game. Prior to 1983, it was the season finale for both teams. The Kats and the Jacks settled on a mid-October date after both moved up to the NCAA Division I Southland Conference.
"No one understands what the 'Battle of the Piney Woods' rivalry means better than the players who have participated," Jenkins said. "Those former players there in the tunnel to fire us up all have their own Piney Woods rivalry stories. You can't help getting fired up being around them. When I'm done playing, you know I'm coming back each year to be part of the tunnel and tell future players our stories."
Since 2007, the winner of the "Battle of the Piney Woods" has earned a 21-pound solid cedar trophy that displays replica pistols from Texas' frontier past. The logos from both universities are engraved on the handle of the pistols above name plates that will display the outcomes of the contest for the next two decades.
"Rivalries add to the excitement and pageantry of college athletics," Sam Houston director of athletics Bobby William said. "This game is one that the fans look forward to each and every season. Adding the rivalry trophy a few years ago has added even more excitement for the series."
The crowds of 24,685 fans in 2010 and 25,145 spectators last year at Reliant Stadium stand as the largest in Sam Houston-Stephen F. Austin series history. It also was the largest crowd for any Bearkat or Lumberjack game versus an NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
"I remember being excited as a young grad assistant here at Sam to have 4,000 people crowd into Pritchett Field to watch us play the Jacks in 1984," Bearkat head coach Willie Fritz said. "Wow. This was something. What a great experience for the players on both teams. Bobby Williams and Robert Hill, the athletic directors at both Sam Houston and SFA, and the people at Lone Star Sports Entertainment and the Texans are to be congratulated on putting on a first class event."
Each of the past two years, game day for the "Piney Woods" battle has started with a packed house at the pregame tailgate party in the Blue Lot south of Reliant. Fans always are in place at 10 a.m. and the crowd just grows and grows.
"I was very surprised to see as many people," one Stephen F. Austin alumnus told a local reporter last October. "We arrived at 11 in the morning and there already were hundreds here. We've been to the tailgates both in Nacogdoches and Huntsville, but it's not on this level. It's a lot of fun and it's exciting. We saw friends we haven't seen in a while. We're definitely coming back for the third time next year."
The event provides a stage for Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin to gain exposure in a city in which more than 65,000 university alumni call home. The Bearkats and Lumberjacks are featured in interviews on all of the city's television, radio and newspaper media throughout the week.
"The game really brings everyone together," SFA wide receiver Cordell Roberson recalled. "Getting to talk to so many former players made us all proud. We look forward to seeing all those guys and more back this October and to seeing all that orange and purple in the stands. It's an intense rivalry and a game that is just epic."
Ticket sales for the 2012 renewal of the rivalry are ahead of last year. The game again will be televised on the Southland TV Network. Tickets remain on sale online at www.gobearkats.com/tickets or at the SHSU athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House at Bowers Stadium. The ticket office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The ticket office telephone number is (936) 294-1729.