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December 17, 2012

Champs come home

Blazers won their third national championship Saturday in Florence, Ala.

VALDOSTA — The newly-crowned national champion Valdosta State Blazers returned home with the championship trophy on Sunday.

Valdosta State’s football team won its third Division II national championship on Saturday, routing Winston-Salem State 35-7 in Florence, Ala.

A crowd of fans was waiting to greet the Blazers at the VSU Athletic Fieldhouse. As the buses, with a police escort, headed down Mary Street towards the fieldhouse, the crowd began to applaud.

The applause got louder once the doors on the bus opened and the players began to file out.

“It was great,” said Valdosta State head coach David Dean. “We had a great send-off. All the way up Baytree we had people sending us off. And for us to come in here at this time, and (have) all these people waiting on us — especially when we’re about two hours late coming back — is really special. We’ve got great fans. The Blazer Nation is a strong group (and) a proud group. I know these kids appreciated seeing everybody here. We appreciate them all coming out.”

“We’re pretty excited (to be back in Valdosta), and a lot more excited now that we saw all these guys come out and celebrate with us,” VSU defensive end Tyler Josey said. “As soon as we got off the interstate and saw the cop cars that were going to take us through town, it kind of hit us that it’s really something special that we’ve done.”

The bus company that was hired to take the VSU football team to Florence was named Champion Coach. It was only a coincidence, but it was an omen, too. Because the football team riding on those buses became champions.

“We were practicing Wednesday morning when the buses pulled up, and our guys got excited when they saw the buses start to pull up. Then when they saw the name on the side, they said, ‘That’s what it’s going to be, Coach, that’s what it’s going to be,’” said Dean, himself a champion coach for the second time in his six seasons as VSU’s head coach. “So they lived up to it.”

It was a memorable season for Valdosta State. The Blazers started the season 2-2, but won their last 10 games and ended the season as the Division II national champions.

The Blazers peaked during the playoffs. In their first postseason game, they avenged one of their two regular season losses, beating West Alabama 49-21. In the quarterfinals, they knocked off Carson-Newman 48-26. Then they headed north for the semifinals and beat Minnesota State-Mankato 35-19 in freezing temperatures. That put them in the national championship game.

In the title game, they dominated. Matt Pierce returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and Cedric O’Neal scored on a 24-yard run on VSU’s first offensive possession, giving the Blazers a quick 14-0 lead. They led 21-0 at halftime. Winston-Salem State rallied in the third quarter, and was close to cutting VSU’s lead to seven, but then Jeremy Grable forced a fumble that Chris Pope recovered in the end zone for a touchback. Then the Blazers staged a long drive, and put seven more points on the board when quarterback Cayden Cochran threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Quin Roberson, making it 28-7. Winston-Salem State never seriously threatened again. Cochran put the game away with a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:32 left to play.

“(This season was) very special,” said Josey, who was also a member of VSU’s 2007 national championship team. “Being a senior, being a captain, it’s really good to see a team come together like we have, and be able to make it all the way, like we did.”

Maybe the only thing that went wrong for the Blazers in the postseason was the transportation. Last week, after the victory over Minnesota State-Mankato, Valdosta State’s plane had to be diverted to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta because of fog in the Valdosta area. The team wound up spending over two hours on the plane in Atlanta while they waited for a bus to drive them back to Valdosta.

And on Sunday, the bus carrying VSU’s defensive players broke down on Interstate 75 a few miles north of Tifton, delaying the team’s arrival in Valdosta. The players and coaches on that bus wound up moving to other buses, though, and everyone got home safely.

The bus problem didn’t seem to bother the players once they arrived at the fieldhouse and saw all of the fans who had waited to welcome them home. They were glad to be back at VSU, and still extremely happy about winning TitleTown’s latest title.

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