Conquering the Sun's Girdle

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December 7th 2019
Published: December 11th 2019
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Even before the season began, I was expecting to attend the Sun Belt Championship Game at Appalachian State University. That was a bold prediction, considering that the Sun Belt Conference has a moveable championship game: it is hosted by the school with the better record. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to attend a championship game from the Group of Five: I have been attending games at schools all season, and all of the Power Five conferences have stationary games that take place at NFL stadiums. Only the MAC in the Group of Five does this. And three of the Group of Five conferences are close enough to me that it would be possible to make a trip without too much effort. I wanted it to be App State, because they’re probably the closest of that Group of Five where I hadn’t yet attended a game, but I wanted to. So the stars aligned, and on the day after Thanksgiving, App State clinched their division and home field for the Sun Belt Championship Game. I bought my tickets from their website the next day for $35, midfield, lowest level. Not too bad, I must say.

I would have loved to attend the SEC Championship Game to see my beloved Dawgs take on LSU. But two things prevented that: location and ticket price. It’s at an NFL/soccer stadium, and the price was minimum $300 just to get in the door. No thanks. I attended the SECCG twice before, even watching this same matchup in 2011. The other Group of Five games within driving distance were at Memphis and FAU, both of which were too far for me this week, though prices weren’t too bad. I have a prior engagement in Athens on Sunday morning.

The only thing I didn’t like about the game was the start time: noon. This meant I would have plenty of time to get back home, but it also meant I would need to stay at a hotel on Friday night. App State is four hours away from me, and with the traffic I saw on Friday afternoon when I got to town, I was glad I had booked a hotel nearby.

I got to Boone, the home of App State, around 2 PM on Friday. The amount of traffic for what I thought was a small town was unbelievable. Mind you, this wasn’t during rush hour of any kind. This appeared to be the normal deal around here. I went to the arena where the ticket window was located, so I could pick up my ticket for the game, and there was zero parking. Not for visitors, not for ticket pickup. I drove around the block (a recurring theme for the afternoon) and finally just parked in a zone with yellow stripes that was designated for pick-up and drop-off only. Maybe they meant tickets? But I was in and out quickly, at least. My next stop was the swag store, and once again, parking was a problem. They have a deck in the same traffic circle as the store, but only the lowest level is for people without parking permits. And it was full. I looped through this thing three times (around the block, mind you, since you could only enter on one side and exit on the other; no two-way traffic) before I gave up and parked in the Baptist church parking lot. I hoped they wouldn’t mind. I went to the store and was back out in about twenty minutes, and my car was still there, so it was fine. Side note: I got a cool hoodie from the store, since the temperature was supposed to be in the low 40s for the game; it’s yellow/gold with gray sleeves and hood. I liked it, and it was one of the cheaper alternatives. I had been looking on the epicenter of narcissism all week to see if there was a color scheme that the home team was going for: their colors are black and gold, but I never saw anything. Only when I got to my hotel room on Friday night did I see that they had posted a tweet around noon of that day reminding fans to wear black. Oops. Hard to remind people to do something when you don’t tell them in the first place.

I walked around the campus a little bit after I found the elusive visitor parking (free for thirty minutes, pay after that; and the line of cars waiting to get out will basically ensure that you won’t get out in thirty minutes). I had visited the campus about three years ago on a big road trip, and I remember liking the campus. There wasn’t that much going on now, though, so it didn’t really strike me as all that impressive this time. I like their green area in the center of the main campus, but maybe the cooler weather has made it look less green. Not sure. It’s also the end of the semester, so most of the students were walking around a little slumped due to exams and such. But I didn’t hang around too much.

My hotel Friday night was the Shady Lawn Lodge in Newland, NC. It’s about sixteen miles away, which takes almost half an hour due to the elevation and winding roads. The views are definitely nice around here. And Newland is a tiny town. This is what I think of when I envision “small-town America.” Three stoplights, and more like a crossroads in between other places. It’s a nice place to visit, but it would probably be pretty miserable to live here for very long, when you’ve gotten used to the conveniences of larger towns. My hotel was amazing—spacious, quiet, and convenient to everything (but nothing is more than a twenty-minute walk away). I also found a little local restaurant called San Dee’s Café, and their tater tots with ranch sauce were divine. The fudge milkshake also made me want more. So there are certainly some gems to discover in the area. But the main reason I wasn’t in Boone was the price of hotel rooms. Further out, the prices dropped, and the towns became more quaint. I think that’s a fine trade-off.

Despite being the site of a conference championship game, I was surprised at how little fanfare I encountered the morning of the game. Maybe that’s the view that the Sun Belt Conference is held in. After the game, and the home team had won (Spoiler Alert!), several of the App State fans were conversing near me, lamenting the reputation of the Sun Belt Conference. Most of them wanted to be in a difference conference, one that garnered more respect. But they were careful, and aware that they would most likely be a mid-level opponent in whatever new conference they found themselves in (they tossed around the American or the ACC, and frankly I think they could dominate either of those conferences, except for Clemson for the moment). But this is the problem with lower-tiered schools who perennially do well: they always want to do more. I suppose that’s the human condition, a bit Faustian even. They were national champions for three consecutive years in the mid-2000s; that was at the FCS level, of course. They even beat fifth-ranked Michigan of the FBS back in 2007 (“all-time upset,” as I remember the Sports Illustrated cover story saying) during that string of championships. And since moving up to the FBS-level themselves, App State has done well within their own conference, this being their third consecutive conference title. So they perform at or above expectations year in and year out; but the desire to grow is ever-present.

That desire is matched by their excited fan base. While I didn’t see much of that spirit in the morning before I arrived at the stadium, that changed once a sufficient number of fans showed up. They were loud for the entire game. Despite being in a conference of low repute, the fans of App State are feisty.

My first stop after I parked on Saturday was the Dan’l Boone Inn and Restaurant. I had stumbled across it on Friday, and it had seriously tempted me before I remembered that I had wanted to eat later, closer to my hotel. But once I discovered that my parking space was just across the street from this restaurant, it almost seemed like fate was calling me. I was not disappointed. I walked across the street and found a short line waiting to be seated. And then I found out the place only accepted cash (or personal check, wtf). Actually this was a common occurrence in this part of the world; even my San Dee’s restaurant on Friday advertised lower prices if paid with cash. But I digress. The food at the Dan’l Boone Inn was really good, especially the ham. And I discovered that it’s a special brand that they offer, and you can buy more in the gift shop to take home. It’s a family-style restaurant, and for a solo traveler, that means that you get a lot of food. Lots of small plates were laid out in front of me, and I tried to eat it all, but it was a task that my morning digestion wasn’t up to. I don’t know why, but I can’t really eat a big breakfast; I ate as much as I could—the biscuits and grits were fantastic, as was the sausage and ham, as I’ve already said. Once I finished, I made my way to the gift shop, where the cashier was located, and I discovered just how popular this place was. The line was now wrapped around the building; my wait had been maybe fifteen minutes, and I was a little unhappy about that at the time (the restaurant had opened at 8:00 AM, and I had arrived at 8:15). It was now 9:15, and I imagine that the wait was over thirty minutes. But $12.99 for unlimited good food will bring out quite the crowd. Some of the people were clad in black, apparently ready for the game; others didn’t seem to have any other care about sports for the day. For me, however, it was a twenty-minute walk to the stadium from here.

The campus was quiet. I know it was still over two hours before kickoff, but I had expected a more vibrant atmosphere. Not until I got to the tunnel leading under the main road and over to the stadium area did I see any tailgating. Even then, it was minimal. There was a larger group crowded around the entrance to the tunnel, and as I went through it, I found the cheerleaders and mascot at the opposite end of the tunnel. I ascended the stairs to take me out of the tunnel and found that either side of the sidewalk leading away from the tunnel was lined with fans on one side, and the band on the other. And so I found myself unexpectedly at the site of the players’ walk. I had read online that it took place three hours and fifteen minutes before kickoff, and at that point, I was still enjoying breakfast, so I decided it wasn’t worth a rush. And now here I was, about two and half hours prior to kickoff, and I was about to see the coaches and players walk through to the stadium. I only had to wait five minutes before the band started playing, the cheerleaders emerged from the tunnel, and the team was right behind them. It was easily the smallest and least-attended team-walk I have witnessed all season.

But as I said earlier, what the morning lacked in festive atmosphere, the game more than made up for it. Kidd Brewer Stadium only seats 30,000 people, so it’s smaller than most in the big leagues (FBS). It’s about the size of the Wake Forest stadium that I visited back at the beginning of October, but the volume and spirit were substantially greater. You can easily tell that this is a proud fan base, and loyal. And one that’s accustomed to winning. Remember those FCS national championships and Sun Belt titles? They’ve got a reason to be proud. They were rowdy before the game began; students showed up on the opposite side of the field from me and loudly taunted the Louisiana players. The crowd only got bigger. People around me were wondering if the place would fill up. I didn’t. The attendance was announced as just over 18,000 people, but it certainly felt like more than that. And it certainly sounded like more, once the game began.

I got to the stadium around 9:45, but it didn’t open until 10:00. So I looked around the exterior and found “the Rock” at the base of the exterior. I took a picture with it, because why not. They call this stadium “the Rock,” and I was reminded of Howard’s Rock at Clemson. But that rock has nothing on this rock, which is huge. The stadium is in a perfect location, surrounded by the mountains on the southern side and with commanding views of the campus from the northern side. They’re in the process of filling in the northern end zone; scaffolding was in place, as was the preliminary infrastructure for some upper-deck seating down there. The program’s expanding, it seems.

And this was the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, so they had representatives from that organization on hand, giving out free swag. I got a mini towel and a beaded necklace with a big Sun Belt pendant at the end. On the other side, where most of the season ticket holders and students were seated, they were giving away foam sun “crowns,” which I wore with gusto, and cheap blue felt Santa hats with “Sun Belt conference” written across the white brim, which I didn’t wear. I did purchase my customary stadium souvenir cup ($6—no fountain drink, just a 20 oz bottle to open and pour in). Right before the game started, I checked out the food trucks and found a popular hamburger establishment. So I got that and brought it back to my seats. Everyone around me asked if I was going to share, and since I got a “pile” of fries, I offered them to any who wanted. Several took me up on it, and there were still too many fries to eat. And then it was noon, and time to kick off this championship game. For some strange reason, both teams were wearing solid colors, no white. The visiting team usually wears white (unless you’re LSU or usually Georgia Tech), so I was surprised to see that the visiting team, Louisiana, was wearing all red—helmets, jerseys, and pants. Then App State came out in all black—helmets, jerseys, and pants. It looked all UGA for a moment, but then I got used to it.

I’m not normally a fan of rematches from the regular season, but this was one that lived up to the billing. Louisiana had won the western division of the Sun Belt, and App State had won the eastern. This was apparently the fourth time these teams have played in the past fourteen months. It’s not only a rematch of a regular season game (which App State won by 7 points) but also a rematch of last year’s Sun Belt championship. And the two teams have played in the regular season that year, too. Coming into the game, Louisiana was 0-7 all time against App State, and they left Boone on this day with an 0-8 record.

So what about this championship game? I saw some bad blood at the Georgia-Georgia Tech game last week, and while this game doesn’t hold a candle to the animosity between those in-state rivals, there was definitely no love lost here. App State was favored to win by 6 points, which was the closest point spread of any championship game this weekend. When they jumped out to a 21-point lead in the first quarter alone, I thought that some of the Vegas oddsmakers must have been idiots. Indeed, by all accounts, this looked to be a lopsided matchup. Louisiana finally got a TD towards the end of the first, but it was still 21-7. In the second quarter, the two teams traded touchdowns, and Louisiana finally created a stalled drive for App State. Louisiana also couldn’t get out of their own way with bad everything, including turnovers. They gave up only two TDs to App State in the second quarter, and just before time expired, they got a field goal to go into the half only down 35-17.

The second half was a different story altogether. While nearly every drive in the first half had yielded a touchdown, things slowed down considerable in the third quarter. It’s like the defenses finally showed up. And then, after 9 minutes of nothing, Louisiana committed the ultimate sin: they gave up a pick six. App State was now leading 42-17, and most people would have said that the game was done at this point. I suppose, theoretically, it was, since Louisiana never got up to 42 points. But they sure made it an exciting second half. Their next drive ended in a quick touchdown, and on the ensuing drive, they sacked the App State quarterback Zac Thomas, who fumbled the ball and gave it back to Louisiana with a very short field. The refs took a timeout for the injured QB, and this was where things got really ugly between the Louisiana players and the App State fans. I had to side with the fans on this one: the players were celebrating their turnover, but they were oblivious to the injured App State QB. Apparently the players had felt like the crowd had been taunting them enough, though I never saw anyone from our side of the field saying or making rude gestures to the Louisiana players. That was of no importance to them, however, as they turned and gave rude gestures and yelled profanities toward the crowd. This definitely riled the crowd up, but nothing was said by any of the coaches or refs. But it sure was funny to watch those players eat proverbial crow when, four plays later, the Louisiana team couldn’t score from a starting position at the twelve-yard line and then their kicker missed an easy field goal. The crowd went crazy when he missed it, and all those Louisiana players were now seated and trying to ignore the people they had just taunted.

Things settled down after this, at least for a while. The teams traded punts, and then App State managed a field goal to go up 45-24. Another 21-point margin. But Louisiana wouldn’t go away. They scored a TD on their next drive and attempted the expected onside kick, but they did not recover it. There were only four minutes left in the game, so instead of trying to make big plays and prevent turnovers, App State chose to be conservative and try to run out the clock. A big penalty put them in a hole, though, and they had to punt. Louisiana took advantage of the opportunity with another touchdown in just over a minute. With 1:19 left in the game, the score was now 45-38, the closest it had been since early in the first quarter. Louisiana had to try again for the onside kick, and when they didn’t recover this one either, the fans began to celebrate. The home team could now take a knee and run down the clock with no potential for an upset. And that’s what they did. Final Score: 45-38.

After that, the fans were invited down to the field for the presentation of the conference championship trophy, which has now been in Boone for three consecutive years. It was a good time, and the makeshift stage at midfield was just high enough for those of us on the field to see the players and coaches and trophy and officials. Then they released a LOT of confetti, and we all remarked at how awful it would be to have to clean that up.

Once that was done, I was on my way back to the car. And it took zero time to get out of there. No traffic to speak of in the direction I went. Seriously, that has to be the easiest exit I’ve made from a football game all season. So in spite of horrible traffic that greeted me when I arrived in Boone on Friday, the post-game traffic on Saturday was a breeze. And four hours later, I was home. And my regular season came to an end. Fifteen consecutive weekends of football games, eighteen games in total. Whew.

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