Neutral Ground for The Battle of the Piney Woods Dulls Rivalry

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When it comes to football rivalries, there might not be another one out there with more history and tradition than the rivalry between Sam Houston State University and Stephen F. Austin State University.   

The rivalry, dubbed “The Battle of the Piney Woods,” is a yearly tradition that goes back as far as the 1920s. This fact makes it the second-longest running rivalry in Division One college football and the longest active rivalry match in Texas college football.   

Saturday marks the 94th time that the two schools will meet on the football field.

The first football match between these two universities was held in 1923, with SFA winning 19-6. The Bearkats’ hard-fought 6-0 victory over SFA two years later in 1925 marked the first time the game was held in Nacogdoches. SHSU leads the all-time series 56-35-2.   

While the rivalry is typically a friendly one, the two colleges have seen their fair share of antics and heated moments.  In the 2004 edition of the grudge match, both benches cleared, and the teams got into an on-field brawl near the end of the game. 

There have been accounts from the ‘60s about an SHSU student that was caught on SFA’s campus trying to pull a prank. His head was supposedly shaved and he was shipped by train the nearly 100 miles from Nacogdoches to Huntsville where he was delivered to the flagpole on SHSU’s campus in a cage.

 In the ‘70s and ‘80s, defacing of the opposing school’s campus with spray paint had become so commonplace that both student bodies met and agreed to ban the action.  After one football victory in the ‘80s, a group of SHSU students allegedly uprooted the Nacogdoches city limit sign and paraded around the SFA campus to celebrate their victory.

More recently, the recognition for winning the rivalry has been less chaotic, and is represented by a special trophy. The universities got together in 2007 to introduce a new plaque that goes to the winner of the football game each year.  The trophy, a solid chunk of cedar adorned with two revolvers and the name of the victorious school, has added a new sense of bragging rights for the two universities to fight for. 

The game is now also played on a neutral site. Since 2010, the yearly bout has been played at NRG Stadium— the home of the Houston Texans.  While this does lead to a renewed sense of majesty for the game, I think it is also responsible for taking the sting out of the rivalry in recent years.

While I can appreciate what it means for the players and fans getting to travel and play on at an NFL stadium, I can’t help but feel like it also diminishes what a rivalry game can be.  A big part of the rivalry is travelling to the opposing team’s stadium and playing in a hostile environment.

Playing in front of a predominately home crowd also adds an extra factor that can give one team an advantage over the other. Losing the animosity that comes with playing the games on non-neutral turf is something that ultimately hurts the competition between the schools more than it helps it. 

This rivalry doesn’t just stop at football. The two schools have officially met in basketball 189 times, with the Lumberjacks having a 95-94 all-time advantage.

The Bearkats are looking to continue their Piney Woods winning streak on the gridiron with a ninth straight win on Saturday. While the Jacks are looking to win for the first time since 2010, the Kats are looking to extend what is already the longest consecutive victory streak in the history of the rivalry. It’s hard to underestimate any team fired up for a rivalry match, but considering the way SFA’s football season has been going thus far, it’s difficult to see the Lumberjacks coming out on top

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