Being one of only three teams in the NCAA that has earned a berth in FCS post-season play each of the past four years is an amazing feat.
But the turn-around by the young 2014 Sam Houston football team to bounce back from a 1-3 start to earn that fourth playoff appearance and the Bearkats’ third Southland Conference championship in the past three years is even more impressive.
With only one senior starting on both the offensive and defensive units and 24 freshmen and sophomores listed among the top 44 players on Sam Houston’s two-deep lineup, the season reached a turning point for the struggling team after a 1-3 start in non-conference play.
The loss to NCAA Division II No. 2 ranked Colorado State-Pueblo September 13 ended SHSU’s FCS best 22-game home winning streak.
Head coach K. C. Keeler believes the loss was the turning point for his first Bearkat squad.
“There are defining moments in every season and that loss to Colorado State Pueblo was ours,” Keeler said. “As men, our team decided that we were going to fix this thing. We weren’t going to point fingers. We weren’t going to go around the corner and cry about it. We were going to get it fixed.”
A twist of fate helped the Bearkats.
When Sam Houston’s September contest with Eastern Washington was moved to August 23 to be on an ESPN national telecast, the 2014 schedule now had two open dates surrounding the Southland Conference opener with Lamar in Beaumont.
“The opportunity to have two weeks before the Lamar game and then two more weeks before McNeese gave us a chance to fix things that were broken,” Keeler said. “Instead of ‘open dates’ we had ‘Get Better’ weeks. And we got better.”
Eighteen players who are now starters did not participate in spring ball last April (either because of injury or because they were transfers or freshmen).
“Our two ‘Get Better’ weeks became spring ball for a lot of the players,” Keeler said. “We tweaked a lot of little things, simplified what we were trying to do defensively. And the result was we began playing with a lot of confidence.”
Michael Wade, All-Southland Conference safety and the only senior starter on the Bearkat defense, recalls the week after the Colorado State-Pueblo game.
“It was a hard obstacle to overcome, the losses that we took,” Wade said. “The main thing Coach Keeler told us was to own it. We couldn’t blame anybody else. We just had to shallow our pride, take the loss and learn from it. During those weeks without a Saturday game, we jelled and messed together as a team. Things started coming out the right way.”
The hard work and confidence showed on the field. Sam Houston defeated Lamar 42-10 in the Southland opener and, two weeks later, knocked off McNeese State 38-22 when the Cowboys stood No. 4 in the nation.
After a loss at Northwestern State, the Kats finished conference play with five straight victories, a league title and an FCS playoff date with Southeastern Louisiana on November 29.
“The way this team came back from the 1-3 start shows you what kind of program we have at this university now,” senior special teams player Dustin Moehlig said. “We could be down, but we have the players and the coaches and support staff to keep us going in the right direction. Sam Houston has a winning tradition now. The new players caught on to that. We came together and you can tell now the offense, defense and special teams are clicking.”
No. 1 ranked New Hampshire and three-time defending national champion North Dakota State are the only other FCS programs that have matched the Bearkats’ record of four consecutive playoff appearances since 2011. Two of those years, Sam Houston reached the National Championship Game in Frisco.
“When I came here as a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect,” Wade said. “That first year we went 6-5. Then we go 14-1 and are in the National Championship Game twice. Expectations are unlimited.”
A victory over Southeastern Louisiana Saturday would match the Bearkats against Jacksonville State, one of the top eight seeds in the playoffs the next weekend. Twenty-four teams earned berths in the playoffs and each has the goal of reaching the championship game Saturday, January 10, in Frisco.
“It’s exciting to be in the playoffs again,” Moehlig said. “These last four years certainly have been a fun ride.”
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