The Sam Houston State football team left for Frisco Wednesday afternoon, traveling in their buses down Huntsville city streets lined with fans and a special 14-car police escort.
The 11-3 Bearkats are returning to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game for the second consecutive season and will face defending champion North Dakota State Saturday at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The Bison beat the Bearkats 17-6 in the title game last year.
"This was a great send off for the team," SHSU head coach Willie Fritz said. "The players and coaches really appreciate all the support we have received this season."
As soon as the Bearkats boarded the buses in front the Ron Mafrige Field House on Wednesday afternoon, they knew that signaled the start of the final stretch toward possibly bringing home a national championship.
About three and a half hours later, the Sam Houston State football team arrived at its hotel, the Embassy Suites, in Frisco and the final preparations could get under way with the 2013 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game just three days away.
"It's going to be fun. It's going to be a good one," Kats All-American safety Darnell Taylor said while waiting for the elevator to go up to his room.
"We've had, I believe, six hard days of practice. It just feels good to be back."
Over the next two days, the Bearkats will go through the grind of practices, interviews and press conferences. They'll also get a chance to meet a few patients from Plano's Children's Medical Center and have a little fun tonight competing against North Dakota State players in a bowling tournament at Main Event in Frisco as well as chow down on some barbecue and play arcade games and even a little laser tag.
Going through and participating in all these events, a drastic change from the normal routine the week of a game, is nothing new for the Bearkats, though. They've went through it all before.
Last year, the Sam Houston and North Dakota State players all participated in the same kind of events leading up to their championship game in which the Bearkats lost 17-6.
Having gone through this kind of buildup before, the Kats feel comfortable knowing what to expect from the next few days before getting down to business on Saturday.
"Coach (Willie) Fritz tells us that we have a bunch of people on this trip with us, but we have our own schedule as far as practice and meetings," Bearkats junior defensive end Jarrett Brown said just before the team dinner Wednesday night.
"We have a time to focus and a time to relax. When it's time to focus, coach Fritz wants us locked in to listen to what he has to say and do what we need to do at that time. We're going to have times where we can relax and have a little fun like that Barbecue Bowl. When it's time to lock in and focus, we'll be at practice, film study and meetings. He wants us mentally prepared for Saturday's game."
For Brown and Taylor, as well as Taylor's twin brother Darius, getting to play for a national championship in Frisco presents a unique opportunity. All three of them as well as a few other Bearkats played high school football in the area.
The Taylor twins played at nearby Mesquite, while Brown took the field for Arlington Bowie.
"For me, Darnell, Darius, this is our backyard and we want to represent it right," Brown said. "Our high school coaches are going to be watching, I'm pretty sure. We're just happy to be here."
With plenty of family, friends and coaches in the area, the Bearkats from the Metroplex haven't had a shortage of requests for those hard-to-get tickets.
"We couldn't get everybody tickets who wanted them, but we do have some high school coaches who are going to be at the game," Taylor said. "It's going to be fun to have a chance to play in front of those guys again."
While the Kats have a few days to unwind, they're not letting themselves get distracted and unfocused.
"We have a tight schedule ahead, but we know why we're here and that's for the game," the hard-hitting safety said.
The 2013 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game is set for Saturday at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco at noon. The contest will be televised live on ESPN2.