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Courtesy: Tom Waddill/Huntsville Item
Coaches rev up "Piney Woods" excitement
Courtesy: Gene Schallenberg/Huntsville Item
Release: 10/04/2012
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 HOUSTON - Just three days before ninth-ranked Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin square off in the 87th edition of the Battle of the Piney Woods, the head coaches, athletic directors as well as diehard supporters of both schools' programs met Wednesday afternoon for the first annual luncheon promoting Saturday's much-anticipated rivalry matchup.

The inaugural Battle of the Piney Woods Luncheon was put on by The Touchdown Club of Houston and was held at the JW Marriott to add to the buildup for what is already a heated rivalry contest.

"I thought it went great. I was excited about the turnout," said longtime Bearkat fan and former Huntsville Hornet Chuck Clements, who played college ball at Houston.

"For this being the first year (of the luncheon), I was excited about the turnout. This will be the 87th game between the two schools and I think this is fantastic that Houston will get to learn more about the game and the two schools. It's a great platform for both Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin."

While there are already a number of activities that take place in Huntsville and Nacogdoches, Wednesday's luncheon was another chance to promote the battle of the Piney Woods contest.

"There is a lot of things already this week. We've got Firefest on Thursday night. Our guys already understand the rivalry and the ramifications of playing Stephen F.," Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz said.

"We're going down there the night before and spending the night in a game when we probably wouldn't generally because of how close it is. Then you drive up, you see the tailgating. We're in an NFL venue. I don't how many more things there is to do to put more significance on the game. I think they've done a good job."

Saturday's game will mark the third straight year that the Battle of the Piney Woods will be held at Reliant Stadium, and the game will remain at Reliant through 2017 because both schools agreed to an extension to the original four-year contract. Since the game was moved from campus sites to the home of the Houston Texans, both schools have benefited from having the rivalry game played on a much bigger stage.

"Houston's a big market for us in recruiting on both sides. We recruit here pretty heavily," Stephen F. Austin coach J.C. Harper said. "I know Sam recruits here heavily. For us to have our school in this arena at Reliant Stadium in Houston, that only makes it better."

During Wednesday's event, both Fritz and Harper as well as the athletic directors from both schools, SFA's Robert Hill and SHSU's Bobby Williams, addressed having the game at Reliant Stadium, their feelings on playing each other as well as touching upon the history of the Piney Woods rivalry, dating back to the early days of the Republic of Texas between Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

"I thought it was very neat and unique," said longtime Sam Houston supporter Kerry Murray. "You learned about the rivalry and the history of the rivalry and how the schools feel about the rivalry. It was very neat."

Through the past several weeks, the Battle of the Piney Woods has been in the spotlight with various TV commercials, spots on radio programs in the Houston area as well as promotion of the rivalry game during home games for the Houston Texans.

As a result, the attendance of Saturday's grudge match may exceed that of the previous two games at Reliant (25,083 last season and 24,685 in 2010).

"It's hard for you to put a price tag on how much publicity this would cost us in what we're trying to do," Fritz said. "Twice a quarter, it was going around Reliant Stadium during the Texans game. It's just great publicity for both universities."

In previous weeks, the Touchdown Club has also hosted luncheons promoting the Texas Southern-Prairie View A&M Labor Day Classic as well as the Bayou Bucket, the rivalry game between inter-city programs Houston and Rice.

"I went to the luncheon for the U of H and Rice game and there were more people here for Sam Houston and SFA," Clements said. "That really says a lot. These are two great universities and it's great for everyone. It gives more exposure for the students and puts Sam Houston on a wider scale. I think it's fantastic."

In the next couple of days, both Fritz and Harper will put the finishing touches on their game plans in order to come away a victory on Saturday and take the next step in pursuit of a Southland Conference championship and they can hardly wait for gameday to arrive.

"It's another thing that makes the game that much better. Everybody coming in here today, you feel the intensity of the rivalry," Harper added. "Nobody wants to talk about it - it's really kind of quiet - but somebody's going to win. Everybody avoids the topic. It's a lot of fun. We're very fortunate to be a part of it and knowing there's great support on both sides."

BEARKATS VS. LUMBERJACKS
Saturday: Sam Houston vs. Stephen F. Austin, Reliant Stadium, Houston, 3 p.m.
Records: Bearkats are 0-1 in SLC play, 2-2 overall; Lumberjacks are 1-0 in SLC play, 2-3 overall
TV/Radio: KUBE (Channel 57 in Houston, Channel 15 on Suddenlink in Huntsville) will televise the game; KSAM (101.7 FM) will broadcast the game

Tickets: Limited number  still available at www.gobearkats.com/tickets or by calling the SHSU ticket office at (936) 294-1729.

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