NCAA Division I football playoff fever is sweeping Huntsville.
After back-to-back Southland Conference championships and Football Championship Subdivision national top five rankings, Sam Houston State is again one of the 20 teams in the fight for a berth in the National Championship Game in Frisco, Texas, Saturday Jan. 5.
Back-to-back NCAA Division I conference titles and playoff appearances is a first for the Bearkat football program that has rolled up an incredible record of 28 victories and only nine losses since Willie Fritz became SHSU head coach. That mark ranks as the "winningest" three-year period in the university's 97 seasons of football.
Record crowds attended last year's three home playoff victories over Stony Brook, Montana State and Montana - all of which were televised to a nationwide football audience by ESPN. If early ticket sales are any indication, the trend will continue when Sam Houston plays host to Cal Poly Saturday Dec. 1.
"It's an awesome goal to attain at this part of the season and overcome these losses that we've had and be able to finish games strong. It's great to be back in this atmosphere of the playoffs." Sam Houston senior Vincent Dotson said Sunday when the Bearkats learned of their second consecutive NCAA playoff invitation.
Following a bye in the first round, which will be used to heal some injuries incurred from playing games in 11 consecutive weeks, the Bearkats (8-3 overall) will host Cal Poly (9-2) in the second round with a scheduled kickoff time of 3 p.m. on Dec. 1 at Bowers Stadium.
"That's good for us," Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said. "We've only had three games on campus. I think that's an added bonus as well. I think the kids will be excited about that. I'm hoping we break our all-time attendance record in that first game. Hopefully, we can get a whole lot of people out there for that ballgame."
The Mustangs of Cal Poly, which finished the regular season with a co-Big Sky Conference championship, present a tough challenge with their tricky triple option offense. Cal Poly averages 333.4 rushing yards per game with 121.7 passing yards per game and is led by senior tailback Deonte Johnson (1,458 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns).
"They're a triple option team," Fritz said. "They run more of the flexbone, with a quarterback under center, a fullback and two slot(backs). There's a lot of movement and they'll try to hit you with a play-action pass. They're always one of the national leaders in rushing, year in and year out."
If the Kats win the Dec. 1 game, they could travel to face No. 3 seed Montana State on the road or host again if there are early round upsets. If Montana State or Eastern Washington win, the Bearkats could face long road trips in the national quarterfinals and semifinals as long as they're alive in the playoffs.
Even if the Kats have to go on those trips to either Montana, Washington or both, they feel they're well-prepared for it from playing eight of their 11 regular-season games on the road.
"I think it will be a tremendous advantage because we're used to adapting and overcoming adversity to being on the road and playing even big teams on the road," Dotson said. "I think it will be a great feel for us to travel. We're going to put the work in, put the time in and you're going to have the outcome that you want. That's what we've been doing. That's what we're going to keep doing. We're going to prepare and hopefully come out with the win."
The big NCAA Division I playoff game with Cal Poly Dec. 1 means more to Huntsville than just another opportunity to enjoy the exciting atmosphere and cheering for the Bearkats.
Last year's three home playoff games made a huge economic impact on the city of Huntsville.
The city benefited from the money pouring in as Sam Houston and opposing fans converge on the area with each passing playoff game.
"The success of the Bearkats is not only good for the university, but it is good for our city," Huntsville City Manager Bill Baine said. "It is about recognition. With all the television exposure the past two years (16 telecasts in two seasons), people are seeing Sam Houston State all over the place. One of the things that benefits our city is our growing university. That brings more people to town who are buying stuff in our shops, eating in our restaurants and sleeping in the hotels."
Last December at playoff time, the benefits were seen in local businesses and restaurants, which boast Bearkat pride with signs in windows and on marquees, before and after games. Attendance numbers for the playoffs were over 30,000 and those people need somewhere to stay and a place to eat.
"We saw people come from all over to Huntsville for the games," Karen Fletcher Adams, area operations manager for Holiday Inn Express and Best Western, said. "We hosted booster groups from Montana State and Montana."
Sam Houston also does not want people to forget how much having fans pack the stands has helped the university. Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz and athletic director Bobby Williams have been quick to point out how the stadium noise has been a factor in the team's play on the field. The Bearkat football team believes the crowds have played a big role in their success.
"We've had just sensational crowds for last year's playoffs," head coach Willie Fritz said. "I was really excited about our crowds, how loud they are, particularly in the fourth quarter. We have a home field advantage now. I'm hoping to get everybody back and have it even better this year. The atmosphere is great. The two years I've been here as a head coach and my previous stints as an assistant coach and graduate assistant, I don't remember anything like this."
Dec. 1: Bearkats host Cal Poly in second round of FCS playoffs, 3 p.m.
Records: Kats are 8-3 overall, co-Southland Conference Champions; Mustangs are 9-2, co-Big Sky Conference champions
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Second-round playoff tickets are now available and can be purchased online at gobearkats.com/tickets or by visiting the athletic ticket office in the Ron Mafrige Field House, which will be open this week Monday-Wednesday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.