FLORENCE, Ala. —
The NCAA Division II national championship week kicked off Thursday in Florence, Ala.
After both teams arrived Wednesday evening, coaches and select players from each team participated in a kickoff press conference on the campus of North Alabama Thursday afternoon.
At the press conference, the Harlon Hill Trophy candidates were introduced prior to both head coaches.
Winston-Salem head coach Connell Maynor opened by introducing his two players and talking about his team's drive to return to the playoffs and make an appearance in the national championship.
In 2011, the Rams were eliminated in the national semifinals. This year, the Rams are 14-0, beating West Texas A&M in the national semifinals last week.
"We were one game away from making it to the championship, we lost a talented Wayne State team that was better than us," Maynor said. "So our guys were hungry and they looked forward to this season."
Maynor also mentioned his team's ability to rest key players throughout the fourth quarter of various games.
"Anytime we had a chance to rest those guys, we took advantage," Maynor said. "We had high-expectations of playing 15 games this season. We wanted to have our horses when we got to this game. I think we accomplished that. We are pretty healthy."
Valdosta State head coach David Dean was introduced last. Dean congratulated the Harlon Hill finalist and then spoke about his team's turnaround, following a 2-2 start to the season.
"We were sitting at 2-2 one time this season and we really weren't sure what direction we were headed," Dean said. "Our kids came into the locker room after we lost to West Alabama and made a commitment to take it one game at a time. They were going to get to where they wanted to be. When we met with our guys Aug. 4, we asked them what they wanted to get out of this season and it was unanimous; they wanted a chance to play for a national championship.”
He then introduced his three players in attendance — quarterback Cayden Cochran, wide receiver Gerald Ford and defensive end Tyler Josey.
During his introduction, Dean thanked the North Alabama people for helping out Valdosta State, which he said probably isn't easy.
"I know it's tough when your from North Alabama to help out the Valdosta State people, because I'm not sure Valdosta State would help out North Alabama that much," Dean said. "They put their differences aside and I want to say thank you."
After the coaches spoke, taking no more than seven minutes each, media members were able to speak with the players in attendance. Here are a few hightlights:
Winston-Salem State QB Kameron Smith
On if Valdosta State was a better matchup than any team WSSU has played this season:
“I wouldn’t say that. I believe their DBs are very athletic. I think if I make my reads, I have some pretty good wide receivers, then we will do pretty well.”
Are the Rams focusing on big pass plays?
“Something like that, depending on how aggressive they’re playing.”
Are you concerned with the lack of fourth quarter experience this season?
“I think we are pretty well conditioned. When we come in for halftime, we have to let the players know that it is still a 0-0 game. We still have to come out and play hard, like we are down.”
What does this environment of the national championship mean to your school?
“It means a lot. I keep getting texts and calls from people that say they are excited for me. So far, it has been a great experience. I’m really enjoying it.”
VSU defensive end Tyler Josey
Facing another running QB this week, what do you key on?
“Anytime you’ve got a running quarterback, you’ve got to keep him contained. That is how we focus on this week, especially when you have one as quick as they do. The speed they have on the perimeter. You can’t let (Smith) scramble out.”
How important is it to get to the quarterback early?
“That is really big. Anytime you have a quarterback leave the pocket, he is going to make things happen, either with his legs or his arms.”
Looking back at 2007 (when you were a redshirt freshman), how many similarities do you see?
“I see a lot of similarities in the leadership we have, compared to what they had back then. And with the kind of ball players we have. We have a lot of good players that have bought in with what we have going.”
— Follow me on Twitter at @Ed_Hooper.