Valdosta Daily Times

December 14, 2012

Blazers fueled by late season collapse in 2011

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

FLORENCE, Ala. — Football coaches will use nearly anything to motivate their teams. Luckily for Valdosta State head coach David Dean, he didn’t have to motivate his team this season. The Blazers were motivated all by themselves.

The Blazers, who will face Winston-Salem State in the Division II national championship game Saturday in Florence, turned to their late season collapse in 2011, where they lost all three of their final games inside the final minute, to motivate them for this season.

“It was our focus when we were in spring,” receiver Regginald Lewis said. “We focused on a minute and 42 (seconds). That is the amount of (time) it took us to lose the final three games. Ever since then, our motto is finish.”

Valdosta State’s finish to the 2011 season wasn’t just painful, it was gut-wrenching. The Blazers allowed three straight final-minute touchdowns to Gulf South Conference teams, and went from being the projected top-seed in Super Region 2 to finishing 6-4, without a playoff berth.

“That was our main thing coming into this season, we had 1:42 every day up in the weight room during the summer,” linebacker Jeremy Grable said. “That is truly what we worked off of.”

Using the late season collapse as motivation during the offseason, the Blazers entered this season with a lot of promise and high expectations.

Then, it happened again.

The Blazers allowed a game-winning touchdown with 1:01 remaining to Saginaw Valley State in the season opener, dropping them to 0-1 on the year and sending doubt throughout Blazer nation.

But while people doubted them, the Blazers didn’t doubt themselves.

“To be able to overcome the three losses that we had last year and then to start off a season the exact same way, basically losing four in a row, you sit back as a coaching staff and say, ‘Are we doing the right things?,’” Dean said. “‘Are we putting kids in the right position? Are we conditioned the way we should be?’ You question yourself a lot.”

While Dean and the coaching staff questioned what was happening, the Blazers never panicked, even after suffering a second loss on the young season (to West Alabama) a few weeks following their heartbreaking loss to Saginaw Valley. Even with a 2-2 record, the team never worried.

Instead, the Blazers put their heads down and went to work, delivering a six-game winning streak to finish the regular season, beating all three teams they lost to at the end of last year, and secured the top seed in the region.

Once in the playoffs, the Blazers reeled off three straight wins to earn the school’s fourth-ever appearance in the national championship game.

“Give a lot of credit to those kids. They believe in us. They believe in this coaching staff,” Dean said. “They believe in what we are trying to teach them and what we going on to the field and trying to do, and we just did not play very well against West Alabama. I think that woke us up.”

Since their 11-point loss to West Alabama (39-28), the Blazers have won by an average of 23.1 points per game.

In the playoffs, the Blazers are winning by an average of 23 points per game, despite trailing by double digits in either the second or third quarter in all three contests. But, as the game clock wound down, the Blazers pulled away, instead of crumbling like they did last season.

“The kids never panicked. They know they have a good football team,” Dean said. “It is just a matter of going out and start playing, doing what we are supposed to do. We talk to our kids about that all the time. You have to overcome adversity. ... That is the good thing about our kids, they got behind 10-0 the other day and didn’t panic. You turn around and they are all out there and like, ‘Coach, we are fine. We’ll take care of it.’”

Now, if the Blazers can make it through one more game with the kind of resolve they’ve shown through their last nine games, they could be hoisting the school’s third national championship since 2004, exactly the way the team planned during the offseason.

“As a team, we didn’t end (2011) like we wanted to,” quarterback Cayden Cochran said. “The seniors, especially, they won’t want to end this (season) with a loss. It was a big deal to us in the offseason, and it has been like that the whole season.”