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Bearkats have similar path as EWU

Take away the red turf and the snow, and this could just as well be Sam Houston State.

Huddled in the parking lot at Roos Field before Saturday’s playoff game, Bearkat fans talked about a surging program ready to make a bigger impression on the national scene.

The obstacles are the same, perhaps magnified in a state with 11 Football Bowl Subdivision schools and a big professional market in nearby Houston.

“There’s so much competition, not only for the athletes but for the fans’ time,” said Al Diller, father of Bearkat wide receiver Trey Diller.

In football-crazy Texas, the loyalties are divided in the same game. During the Bearkats’ regular-season finale at Texas A&M, Brian Smith, father of starting tackle Riley Smith, noticed fans wearing Sam Houston class rings and Aggie gear – at the same time.

“It’s enough to make you throw up,” Smith said.

Sound familiar, Eastern fans?

Both programs have surmounted those obstacles all the way to the FCS final four, the Bearkats doing it mostly on the road this year. Diller was in Bozeman last week, Cheney today.

“I haven’t missed a game since that boy was 8 years old, and I’ve videotaped every game he’s played,” Diller said before the Bearkats defeated Eastern 45-42 to earn a rematch with a North Dakota State program that defeated them last year in Frisco, Texas.

And just as Eastern fans credit head coach Beau Baldwin with the Eagles’ rise to prominence, the Sam Houston fans point to third-year head coach Willie Fritz for turning around a program whose win total didn’t always match its talent.

That success has brought the school into higher relief on the Texas plains. Freshman enrollment was up 20 percent this fall over the previous year.

“It’s been a great ride, it’s a real blessing,” Smith said. “Willie Fritz is a stern taskmaster. For years, we’ve been competitive, but it’s been a yo-yo kind of thing.

Said Diller, “Coach Fritz demands success, and he makes them work hard to do it.”

The Bearkats said they were impressed with the Eastern program, less so with its signature red turf.

“Interesting,” Diller said.

Smith was more forthright: “I don’t care much for the red turf, but for y’all that’s good, I suppose.”

Jim Allen

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