When Richard Sincere first joined the Sam Houston State football team as a freshman in 2009, going to the playoffs was never part of internal conversations, nor was winning the Southland Conference championship.
The Bearkats were coming off a 4-6 season and on their way to another six-loss campaign. This was long before Timothy Flanders became the all-time leading rusher in Southland Conference history, before Brian Bell became the school’s “winningest” quarterback, back when Bookie Sneed was still playing cornerback for Conroe High School.
Willie Fritz was hired from Central Missouri following the 2009 season and suddenly things started changing.
A lot of the returning players were off the roster by the end of spring football. And guys like Sincere and Torrance Williams survived the changes.
Fast forward to 2013 and those two players are key pieces of a back-to-back Southland Conference championship team that made it to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game in consecutive seasons and in the Kats' third straight appearance in the FCS playoffs.
Sam Houston defeated Southern Utah from the Big Sky Conference in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Football Championships and now face Southeastern Louisiana in the second round. The contests mark the ninth and 10th time these seniors have suited up for an NCAA playoff game.
“Back when we came here, the expectations were totally different,” Sincere said. “When Coach Fritz came in, he kept some of us from the previous staff and said he would get us going and that we would be one of the top teams in the nation. He wanted us to be one of the top programs in the NCAA, so we just believed in what he was telling us. We all bought in and it all came together.”
Ask any of the seniors who experienced the 2011 undefeated season in which Sam Houston won three straight playoff games at home to punch a ticket to the national championship game and every one of them surely will describe those games as their most memorable moments at Bowers Stadium.
That’s when Sam Houston set attendance records that haven’t been replicated since.
“A lot of my best memories come from 2011,” Williams said. “I’d say definitely the playoffs, that three-game stretch at Bowers Stadium in 2011. We had Stony Brook, a tough game. We came back the next game and we were just hitting every way possible against Montana State. After that, beating Montana and realizing we were actually going to the national championship. That moment, those three games I wish I could get them back, but I’ll always cherish the memories.”
Senior Jesse Beauchamp emerged as a starter last year when fellow linebacker Eric Fieilo went down with a season-ending injury in the season’s first game. But Beauchamp was a sophomore reserve on the undefeated ’11 group that only lost to North Dakota State in the national championship game.
“The last two years in the playoffs, especially in 2011 with the awesome crowd,” Beauchamp said. “That Montana game gave us our first berth into the national championship game. That was probably the best moment I’ve ever had here.”
Senior running back Ryan Wilson acknowledged how raw this group of seniors was when Fritz took over. Wilson said as the players aged and became more experienced, the way they prepared for games changed to championship form.
When asked about an outstanding memory at Bowers Stadium, Wilson didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely the first run we had, the 2011-12 season,” he said. “The semifinal against Montana was just unreal. The atmosphere was crazy. The stands were packed. Everybody was loud. It was just a memory that I’ll never forget. I always picture Bowers Stadium from that game.”
Flanders, along with Sneed and Sincere, had memories similar to his teammates. Nothing sticks out quite like the end of the Montana game, when the Kats held a three-point edge with a few minutes to play. They went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 47.
Punting would have meant giving it back to Montana, a team which had success moving the ball against Sam Houston’s defense in the second half.
Flanders got the call on that critical play. He broke loose for a 22-yard gain to seal the deal.
“It’s been a lot of yards and a lot of wins,” Flanders said. “I want to say it was that last playoff game in 2011. We played Montana. It was that fourth-and-1 call, getting that last first down. That will probably be my biggest memory.”
Growing up just a half-hour drive down the road in Conroe, Sneed was often discouraged from pursuing a college football career at Sam Houston. It seemed too close to home and the Bearkats weren’t very good at the time.
But when he made an official visit as part of Fritz’s first recruiting class and was shown around by former SHSU defensive back Mike Littleton, Sneed gravitated to the family atmosphere that he felt was lacking at the other schools interested in signing him.
Bell was on the same visit and months later the two discussed turning things around. They wanted to contribute to the change they wanted to see.
“That semifinal game against Montana,” Sneed said. “For one, we were in a situation like we’d never been before. It was a new experience, new team. We’d never seen Bowers so pumped up like that. The game was real close and it was a lot on the line, a trip to the national championship.
“That’s probably the biggest memory I have of Bowers. I still keep that to this day. I haven’t seen it get like that since that game. It’s been close a few times, but as far as the rowdiness, it hasn’t been like that since.
“Overall, I’m going to miss this place,” Sneed added. “You know, I played here in high school a few times. I never thought I would come to Sam Houston to play ball. I remember Coach Fritz and his staff offered me a scholarship like the week before signing day, exactly a week. I remember Brian Bell was on my visit, too. A few months later we talked and said we were going to make it happen.
“I felt the most comfortable here. It’s been a real blessing. Everybody from Conroe went to Sam. I can go anywhere and ask for advice. I’m glad I signed here. You always have dreams, but once it really started happening, wow. It’s been good times and hopefully it’s not the last time.”
The 15 Sam Houston seniors on the 2013 squad look to make more memories this weekend when the Bearkats look to extend their record home winning streak and move on to the next round in the playoffs.
Complete ticket information for Saturday’s NCAA tilt with Southern Utah is available at GoBearkats.Com Ticket Information Link.