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Courtesy: David Barfield
Nothing like the playoffs
Courtesy: Gene Schallenberg/Huntsville Item
Release: 12/01/2012
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Hardly anything comes close to matching the intensity or finality in football. Though the regular season can be filled with thrilling finishes and

outstanding individual performances, there's something about the playoffs that raises the game of everyone involved.

"We'd like to think of it as any other game, but I don't think we thought of it as any other game. It's the playoffs," said Bearkats senior safety Kenneth Jenkins after Thursday's practice, the final one before today's FCS second-round playoff showdown against Cal Poly, of Sam Houston's playoff games last season. "Other games, if you lose, you get another week. In playoffs, it's not like that. If you make a mistake, it can mess you all up and can end your season."

Heading into last year's postseason, the Bearkats, though they were undefeated and the No. 1 overall seed, were one of the youngest and greenest teams looking to get as far as they could and potentially play for a national championship.

"It was brand-new to us," Jenkins said. "The offense, I knew they were going to be ready, had a bunch of sophomores. Once the playoffs came, they were as ready as the defense was.

"It was exciting for us to get to go to Frisco. If we were being real about it, we knew we were good, but who knew we were good enough to get to Frisco?"

The rest is history as Sam Houston found a way to put Stony Brook away 34-27 in the final minutes in their second-round playoff game, thumped Montana State 49-13 in the quarterfinals and the Kats got just enough plays when they needed them to knock off Montana 31-28 and punch their ticket to Frisco for the FCS national championship game.

"Last year's playoff run taught me and I know a ton of our football team just to take it one game at a time. Everybody's 0-0 and records don't matter," Kats quarterback Brian Bell said. "Nothing matters. Home-field advantage doesn't even matter. You just take it one game at a time. That's the main focus for our football team.

"We just had to keep fighting. Each team we faced was going to be the best team. We can't underestimate anybody, especially in the playoffs."

The difference between now and then is that with nearly every starter, much more seasoned, returning from last fall's playoff squad, the Kats feel a little better prepared to handle everything - pressure, nerves, close calls - that comes with trying to navigate through the 20-team field to be one of two teams to play for a national title.

While the FCS postseason officially got under way last weekend for just four teams (South Dakota State, Coastal Carolina, Wagner and Stony Brook) that are still alive, playoff-like contests started for the Bearkats in late September.

Following a disheartening 24-20 loss at Central Arkansas in the conference opener after leading by 10 with nearly five and a half minutes to play, the Bearkats had a world of pressure on them. Sam Houston needed to win its next seven games against Texas Southern and the remainder of its conference slate just to remain in contention for the playoffs.

From late September to mid-November, the Kats convincingly played their way back into the playoffs with only one of those contests, a 51-43 victory over rival Stephen F. Austin, that wasn't decided by the opening stages of the second half to win a share of the Southland Conference title.

With their résumé, even a blowout loss to Texas A&M, the Kats earned an at-large berth into the FCS playoffs and a first-round bye.

Sam Houston played through the latter part of the regular season with more pressure than most, though it was self-inflicted from early losses and lofty expectations. From getting through all of those must-win games on top, the Kats feel that helped them get mentally prepared much earlier than expected for the playoffs and prepared them for those pressure-packed games.

"Coaches told us that since we lost two games (Baylor and Central Arkansas) already, if we wanted to go back to Frisco and play in the playoffs, y'all know you can't lose any more," Jenkins said.

"From there, it was the playoffs from that week on. If we lose, we can't go. That's why we went on that 7-0 run. That's the mentality we had, playing every game like a playoff game.

"It might be a playoff game for everybody else starting tomorrow or last week, but I think we've been in the playoffs since the Central Arkansas game. That's how we see it."

As Sam Houston prepares to get the playoffs under way, the Kats say they'll rely on their experience gained from last year's playoff games as well as this season's mid-season slate.

"We have a bunch of experience on this team. We might've had some nerves going into the playoffs last year, but I don't think anybody really has any nerves going into this year," Bell said. "We've just got to come out and play our best and execute and not beat ourselves.

"Just knowing that if you lose, you're going home. That's always in the back of your mind. The fact that we've got to come in here and play each and every week and the bye week means we've got to create our own momentum. All of that stuff is going to weigh in on our mind-set coming into it, but like I've said before if we take it one game at a time, we'll be fine."


Honoring a teammate - In the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, backup running back Ryan Wilson suffered a season-ending injury with a broken hip. In honor of his teammate, who played an important role in the Bearkats advancing to the FCS national championship game last season, junior cornerback Bookie Sneed will wear Wilson's number (No. 4) in today's second-round playoff contest against Cal Poly.

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