What the Bearkats hope will be the beginning of another march to a championship and an NCAA playoff appearance begins Sunday and Monday as 95 players report for the beginning of Sam Houston preseason football game.

More than three months after the annual spring game, the Kats hit the turf at Bowers Stadium for the first preseason practice on Monday evening.

“It’s very exciting,” Sam Houston State All-American running back Timothy Flanders said last week. “It’ll be good to see the rest of the team and to see where we’re at and where we need to go from there.”

Monday’s workout will be the first of 29 over the next few weeks before the 2013 campaign gets underway on Aug. 31 at home against first-year program Houston Baptist.

“We’re allowed to have 29 practices and we’ll have 29 practices before that first ballgame,” Bearkats coach Willie Fritz said. “I’m glad we’ve got that first game against Houston Baptist. I like playing 12 games. I think if you can play 12, you should play 12. You work 365 days a year and instead of having 11 opportunities, you have 12. We’ve got some new guys playing for us, so that will give us game experience.”

National finalists the past two seasons, the Bearkats return several key players with a wealth of experience, such as Flanders, quarterback Brian Bell, receiver Richard Sincere, defensive linemen Andrew Weaver, Jarrett Brown and Gary Lorance, linebackers Eric Fieilo and Jesse Beauchamp and All-American cornerback Bookie Sneed.

“Number one, you want to keep them healthy,” Fritz said. “That’s the important thing and also helping them fine-tune their game. Tim Flanders has played a lot of football around here. Richard Sincere’s played a lot of football. I know what those guys can do. There’s still some things they can work on, which are muscle memory-type deals like catching the ball and ball security and different drills we can do.”

While the Bearkats will have plenty of experience, there are also some big vacancies to fill in the secondary, on the offensive line and at tight end. Addressing those vacancies will be one of the priorities for Fritz and his staff as camp kicks off this week.

“We’re going to have some new faces on the offensive line. We’re going to have some new faces playing for us in the secondary. We’re going to be breaking in a new punter and a new kicker. Even though we’ve got a lot of experience coming back, we’re going to have some new faces at key positions,” Fritz said.

“You have a pretty good idea after about five practices. It shows you the freshmen, true freshmen, who are ready to play right now and guys who probably need to be redshirted after five or six workouts. Then, you start getting some guys into competition. Who plays depends upon durability and who picks things up the fastest when you start throwing in new schemes.

“I’ve got two redshirt (freshman) quarterbacks (Jared Johnson and Don King III) competing to be our No. 2 quarterback behind Brian. That’s going to be an exciting battle. They’re both going to be great players here at Sam Houston. We lost two quality tight ends in J.D. Standley and T.J. Jones. We feel really good about Shane Young, but we need some tight ends to step up so we can run multiple tight end packages.

“A bunch of guys who were redshirted are going to play now. It’s really 29 opportunities for you to mold your team.”

The Bearkats will have three scheduled scrimmages on Aug. 12, 17 and 21 during their preseason camp that runs through Aug. 23 before regular-season prep work for the season opener against the Huskies begins the following week.

“The first week, the practices are fast,” Flanders said. “We know what it’s going to take for us this season. We can’t start over. I can’t wait.”

“We’ve got the highest expectations and that’s our motto for 2013,” the coach added. “We’re happy with our accomplishments but we’re not satisfied. We know the prize and to achieve the national prize as national champion, we’ve got to be conference champion first.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Reserved bench season tickets for all seven home games at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium this season are on sale now at www.gobearkats.com . Fans also may call or visit the SHSU athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House in the south end zone of the stadium. Ticket office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The ticket office telephone number is (936) 294-1729.