Valdosta Daily Times

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May 21, 2014

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Blazers hope experience pays off at nationals

VALDOSTA — Three teams are making their first trip to the NCAA Division II national championship tournament.

For Valdosta State, though, it is a familiar path as the Blazers departed town Tuesday bound for nationals for the third straight year and fourth time in five years. The Blazers are hoping that familiarity pays off at the Moyer Sports Complex in Salem, Va., this weekend as VSU opens the tournament at 5 p.m. Thursday against Wayne (Mich.) State. The Warriors are making their third national trip, while Southeastern Oklahoma, West Chester and West Texas A&M are all making the tournament for the first time.

“People that have never been there sometimes will play a little tight at the beginning,” VSU coach Thomas Macera said. “You definitely don’t want to fall behind early.”

It’s a sentiment that the elder Blazers shared as well. Seniors April Collins and Brianna Hancock and juniors Courtney Albritton and Fran Johnson will be making their third trips to the national tournament. That experience and the wisdom that comes with it is something they’ve tried to share with some of the newcomers.

“We know what to expect and we’ve tried to tell some of the younger ones what nationals is like,” Johnson said. “You can’t explain it. It’s this whole own experience. And I know when I first went that I was pretty intimidated.”

Said Hancock: “We just want to be leaders for the other girls that haven’t and try to show them what nationals is all about and to bring their ‘A’ game. I just think the experience can help the younger ones because we have a young team.”

For Albritton, that means sharing the story of how her national championship experience began — shaky.

“We know what to expect and we’ve been talking to our freshmen about that this week, especially those in the starting lineup,” said Albritton, a two-time All-American and three-time Gulf South Conference Player of the Year. “We know what all is there and we’re looking forward to it.

“I told them my experience as a freshman. The first ball that came to me I bobbled about four times and threw it in bad and Marti (Littlefield) just had to tell me to calm down. And we’ve basically been telling them, it’s the same game and just play your best and what happens, happens.”

But after the shaky start, Albritton and the Blazers settled their nerves and found their footing. Valdosta State won its first national championship at that 2012 tournament in Louisville, Ky.

That title has been motivation for those Blazers, who are trying to win their second national title in three years. The last time a Division II team has won multiple titles in that short period of time was California (Penn.), which won back-to-back crowns in 1997-98.

“That’s definitely pushing us, we definitely want to repeat,” Hancock said. “I don’t know any team that has really, and I think it would just be awesome to bring it home to Valdosta. We’re a winning town, and just to contribute to that would be amazing.”

Added Johnson: “Winning it definitely lets you know that it is possible. We set very high standards for ourselves. We forget that most teams don’t even get to go to nationals. It’s an honor and we’re so excited.”

But Albritton said the biggest push was provided by last year’s national trip. After heading to Salem as the defending national champs, Valdosta State played two games and after a pair of extra-inning losses, the Blazers were sent back home winless.

“I think last year has really helped us,” she said. “We’ve been saying that we’re not going two and out. Having that experience has really been pushing us. Refuse to lose, I guess.”

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