As the disappointment of Saturday’s 17-6 loss to an outstanding North Dakota State team in the NCAA Division I National Championship final wears off, Bearkat players and fans can look back on the 2011 football season and realize it was a very good year.
In fact, it is remarkable all the things the Kats were able to accomplish with such a young squad.
From cruising through the Southland Conference toward their first outright title, going through the regular season undefeated – the fact that Sam Houston was the only unbeaten Football Championship Subdivision team out of 120 squads speaks to the difficulty of such a feat – and advancing to the national title game, beating Stony Brook, Montana State and Montana in the manner the Kats did, there was certainly plenty of highlights and lots of excitement to go around in their 14-1 season.
Considering Sam Houston was picked to finish fourth in the Southland Conference by the league’s coaches during the summer, ending the campaign as a national runner-up isn’t too shabby of a consolation prize.
While previous Sam Houston squads (1991, 2001 and 2004) made the playoffs and then went through years of mediocrity, the way the current group of Bearkats is currently constructed – no one-year transfer quarterback wonder this time – there’s no reason to think that this team will be another flash in the pan.
With a solid core of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball with quarterback Brian Bell, utility man Richard Sincere, running backs Tim Flanders, who could on the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award, and Ryan Wilson, and receivers Keith Blanton and Trey Diller all just sophomores and soon-to-be juniors in the fall, the Bearkats have their weapons lined up to make even bigger strides in the 2012 campaign, even with a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bearkats, which were one of the nation’s top defensive units in all of the FCS, bring back a bulk of returners, though they’ll be losing defensive end Eddie Decambre and linebackers Kash David and Will Henry.
The defense, which finished the season ranked in the top five in four defensive categories, including No. 1 in rushing defense, No. 2 in scoring defense and No. 3 in total defense, will be one of the more experienced squads around.
Defensive backs Darnell Taylor, Kenneth Jenkins, Robert Shaw and Mike Littleton will be entering their senior seasons as well as linebackers Darius Taylor and Eric Fieilo. The defensive line will also be seasoned with seniors Andrew Weaver and J.T. Cleveland, along with juniors Preston Sanders, Gary Lorance and Forbes Baggett.
“We’re going to go back and regroup and see everything that’s transpired this season. But we are a very young football team, without question,” Sam Houston head coach Willie Fritz said following Saturday’s 17-6 loss in the FCS national title game.
“And got a lot of guys coming back. … The future’s very bright for the Bearkats.”
With plenty of depth at key positions across the board, head coach Willie Fritz has the Bearkats on the right path and can even improve on that with a solid recruiting class.
If the 2010 season served as setting the foundation, then the 2011 campaign may very well provide the framework for a championship run next season.
Sam Houston went from average, skipped good and went straight to great. Now the Kats have the opportunity to build upon it.
A young North Dakota State team used a devastating loss in the 2010 playoffs to eventual national champion Eastern Washington and turned it into a championship run with plenty of senior leadership.
Well, that same formula could be in the Bearkats’ future, barring injuries and other intangibles. Sam Houston, now with plenty of playoff experience, can be a team that regroups from Saturday’s loss and turns that into its own national championship.
If anything, the Kats were a year ahead of schedule, not only winning the Southland, but reaching the national championship game with a large amount of underclassmen.
From a strong base to work from, the Bearkats, who probably will start out the 2012 season as one of the top two teams in the country, are poised with all of the right ingredients in place to do something even greater.