More thrilling than a Wisconsin Badgers victory at the Cotton Bowl, I’ll dare to argue, is an Oshkosh Titans trip to the Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va., on mid December.
If all goes well for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh football team during semifinal play, the squad heads to the NCAA Division III championship for the first time in school history.
The excitement that accompanies such a maiden voyage is electrifying, especially if UWO is your alma mater, as it is for me. That said, Wisconsin is no stranger to Salem: The UW Whitewater Warhawks made the trip nine times in the past 11 years, earning six national football titles there.
What would UWO fans be getting into, besides filling a 7,400-seat stadium with gold and black? Salem, population 25,000, sits at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, 15 minutes from the Appalachian Trail and 20 minutes from Roanoke, which Carey Harveycutter describes as Salem’s big sister.
Carey is tourism director in Salem and game manager for NCAA-hosted events. He also is married to the former Judy Smith of Kenosha, whose brothers Jim and John still live in the city.
So Carey knows what Wisconsinites like. Order a calzone at Mac and Bob’s, he suggests, a 330-seat restaurant that began as a 10-stool pub in 1980. Serving sandwiches to steaks, with almost 50 craft brews on tap. macandbobs.com, 540-389-5999
More intimate and one block away is the 50-seat Blue Apron, fine dining with French influences, and fancy craft cocktails at the Red Rooster Bar. blueapronredrooster.com, 540-375-0055
For breakfast, head to The Roanoker, around since 1941. Order the buttermilk biscuits, which were featured on “The Today Show” and elevated the restaurant onto Southern Living’s list of top five breakfasts in Virginia. theroanokerrestaurant.com, 540-344-7746
Best place for a “we-were-there” selfie is the 88.5-foot-tall Roanoke Star, the world’s largest that is freestanding and manmade. The beacon on Mill Mountain began as a seasonal Christmas decoration in 1949. Now it’s an icon for the region and shines every night.
In and near Salem are 15 miles of greenway, for leisurely bicycling, jogging or strolling. Even better is the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, a national scenic byway that weaves through the Appalachian Highlands. Roanoke-Salem is the largest metro area that you’ll find along the way. nps.gov/blri, 828-348-3400
Game-day tailgating is a tradition before the Stagg Bowl, and a $25 pre-game huddle at 5 p.m. Dec. 16 includes a meal at Salem Civic Center. At 7 p.m. Dec. 15, a meal with the championship teams costs $30.
If you head to the Stagg Bowl on your own, you’ll need a vehicle, so keep that in mind when planning flights. Roanoke has an airport, but it might be less expensive to fly to Dulles International Airport, near Washington DC and a four-hour drive to Salem.
Finding a Salem-area hotel for under $100 per night is not difficult, and some rates include breakfast. Expect temperatures around 40 degrees, downright balmy by Wisconsin standards. visitroanokeva.com, 540-342-6025
What if our Titans don’t make it this year? Consider it a seed planted for 2017, and hope that Oshkosh, Whitewater or another Wisconsin team once again qualifies for the eastward trek.
Sports fans, here are five additional getaways to consider.
Columbus, Ohio – for the Dec. 15 and 17 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championship. The UW Badgers are ranked third and hosting regional play. Getting around is easy, thanks to the free and frequent Cbus that links Nationwide Arena to downtown shops, restaurants and watering holes along and near High Street. experience columbus.com, 614-221-6623
Detroit – for the Jan. 1 Packers-Lions game, the last of the regular season and one that may well feed or end a cliffhanger in NFL standings. Ford Field is part of what Forbes calls “the most compact sports district in America,” and work to enlarge and enliven the area as an eating-entertainment hub is serious and ongoing. By this time next year, downtown Detroit will be home to four pro sports teams, the NBA Pistons, NHL Redwings, MLB Tigers and Lions. visitdetroit.com, 313-202-1800
Arlington, Texas – for the Jan. 2 Orange Bowl that pits the Badgers against Western Michigan at AT&T Stadium. Expect to rent a vehicle. Public transportation options are minimal; an exception is Arlington Trolley, but only if you stay at a hotel that is a pickup point. Trinity Railway Express links Dallas and Fort Worth but ignores Arlington. arlingtontrolley.com, 817-504-9744 visitdallas.com, 214-571-1000; trinityrailwayexpress.com, 817-215-8600
Washington DC – for the March 8-12 Big Ten men’s basketball tournament at Verizon Center. Red, yellow and green Metro rail lines stop at the stadium, making it easy to stay almost anywhere in the area and let somebody else do the driving. wmata.com, 202-637-7000; washington.org, 202-789-7037
Phoenix – for the April 1 and 3 NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship. The fierce sport is full of surprises but, hey, the UW Badgers made it to the Final Four during two of the past three years. Why not call it a getaway for major league baseball spring training and hang around a little longer, just in case? visitphoenix.com, 602-254-6500