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January 1, 2013

No. 1: Two championships for VSU

VALDOSTA — There is no denying which university owned Division II athletics in 2012.

Valdosta State University dominated the athletic competition, claiming two national championships within a seven-month span.

It started in May, when the women’s softball team won the NCAA Division II softball championship. The year of dominance was capped off when the football team won the Division II national championship in December.

The softball national championship was the school’s first-ever women’s sport championship and the school’s sixth overall national championship. Football’s 35-7 win over Winston-Salem State on Dec. 15 was the Blazers’ third championship in the past nine seasons, and their first since 2007.

Softball’s championship run was capped off with a 4-1 win over the University of California-San Diego in the championship game. The Blazers finished the season with a 58-5 record, and as the four-time defending Gulf South Conference champions.

Despite losing their first game of the year, the Blazers reeled off 36 straight wins during one stretch of the season, the longest winning streak in conference history. A loss to Delta State in the final week of the regular season ended the streak, but helped the Blazers re-focus for their championship run.

A week after the loss, the Blazers beat Delta State for the conference championship, and earned the right to host the South Region tournament.

After recording wins over Miles College on Friday and rival Alabama-Huntsville on Saturday, heavy rain moved Sunday’s regional game versus Rollins to Monday morning. After falling in the first game on Monday, the Blazers faced elimination later in the day, but used some impressive pitching from senior right-hander Alanna Hadley and tough defensive plays by right fielder Clare Wamsley and center fielder Courtney Albritton, both of whom leaped above the outfield fence to rob Rollins hitters of potential game-winning home runs, to push into the Super Regional round, where they hosted the Florida Southern Lady Mocs.

In the first game of the Super Regional series, the two teams played a 16-inning classic, the longest Division II softball game since 2008, and broke an attendance record at Valdosta State’s softball complex. The Blazers won 2-1 with a Natalia Morozova walk-off single to left field in the bottom of the 16th inning, sending the crowd of nearly 1,000 people into a jubilant uproar. The next day, the Blazers beat FSC and advanced to their second national championship tournament in three seasons.

At nationals, held in Louisville, Ky., the Blazers faced more adversity than any other team. After losing to reigning national champion UC-San Diego on the first day of the tournament, VSU played its way through four elimination games en route to an appearance in the championship game, where the Blazers claimed a redeeming victory over the Tritons.

The Blazers’ magical run towards a national championship was aided by a strong senior class of eight players, five of whom spent all four years at Valdosta State.

The contributions of the senior class couldn’t be overlooked.

For the five seniors — Marti Littlefield, April Hutchens, Clare Wamsley, Colette Rollins and Julia Fink — that spent all four years at VSU, they led the Blazers to 205 wins and four consecutive conference championships, clearly making them the most successful four-year senior class in the program’s history.

Of the seniors, nobody had a more stellar career than Littlefield, the team’s starting shortstop all four seasons. After big freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, Littlefield became the conference’s all-time leader in runs batted in this past year, finishing her career with 240. She was an All-American three times and was named to the All-South Region team all four years.

While the senior class shined in 2012, the Blazers also received key contributions from other players, including freshman center fielder Courtney Albritton, who was named the GSC Freshman and Player of the Year, and later garnered All-America honors.

Albritton led the team in nearly every offensive category, including home runs (16), runs batted in (62) and doubles (22). She also helped the Blazers grab an early lead in the national championship game, launching a solo home run in the bottom of the first inning, which gave VSU a 1-0 lead.

Left fielder Morgan Johnson was solid this season, being named a third-team All-American after hitting .427 on the season and launching two home runs during the national tournament. Johnson was named an All-American, and later garnered the conference’s Commissioner’s Trophy, which is awarded to the conference’s best student-athlete.

Throughout the Blazers’ magical season, the fan support for the team continued to grow. By the end of the season, VSU broke several attendance records, including in the Super Regional, which saw 843 fans attend the Blazers’ game versus Florida Southern.

Following the championship win, Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera, who was named the conference’s Coach of the Year and became VSU’s all-time leader in softball wins, and his staff were named the Coaching Staff of the Year.

The Blazer football team won the national championship after winning 10 straight games to close out the season, including its win over Winston-Salem State in the championship.

After closing out the 2011 season with three straight final-minute losses to conference opponents, the Blazers started 2012 with a loss to Saginaw Valley State. The Cardinals scored with 1:01 remaining in the game, securing a 28-24 win over the Blazers.

Valdosta State ended its four-game losing streak, its first since the early 1990s, with a 62-14 thrashing of Fort Valley State the following week. After a 43-10 blowout win over Angelo State at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Blazers fell to 2-2 on the season with a 39-28 loss to conference foe West Alabama.

Following the loss, many started to doubt the veteran Blazers and whether or not they could make a run towards the national championship.

But after a team meeting in the locker room just minutes after the loss to West Alabama, the Blazers came together to win the final six games of the regular season, and secured the top seed in Super Region 2.

Among the wins to close out the regular season, the Blazers beat rivals West Georgia, North Alabama and Delta State in three consecutive weeks. The win over Delta State was the team’s first under Dean.

The Blazers also recorded wins over Edward Waters, GSC newcomer Shorter and Texas A&M-Kingsville.

After a 23-day break in game action, the Blazers were healthy heading into the playoffs, where they struck revenge against West Alabama, scoring 34 unanswered points in the second half to win 49-21.

Including the playoff win over the Tigers, the Blazers beat every Gulf South Conference team in 2012.

The following week, the Blazers once again trailed in the second half of their playoff game, but managed to win 48-26 over Carson-Newman. In the semifinals, the Blazers routed Minnesota State-Mankato, 35-19, despite trailing by 10 points early in the second quarter.

Valdosta State’s impressive run to its third national championship since 2004 was led by the stout play of its offensive line, which consisted of five seniors. The big five — Cam Short, Ryan Schraeder, Jake Thomas, Edmund Kugbila and Mesh Wokomoty — paved the way for a Blazer offense that averaged a school-record 218.9 yards rushing per game and finished with a school-record 40 rushing touchdowns.

The Blazers also finished with over 3,000 yards rushing this season (3,065), which was also a school record.

The majority of the rushing attack came on the legs of two freshmen. True freshman Cedric O’Neal became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007, finishing the year with 1,198 yards and a team-high 14 rushing touchdowns.

O’Neal was joined in the 1,000-yard rushing club by redshirt freshman Austin Scott, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in the championship game. Scott finished the year with 1,030 yards and nine touchdowns, despite missing 2 1/2 games with a high ankle sprain.

O’Neal and Scott became the first rushing duo to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in the same season in school history.

In the passing game, quarterback Cayden Cochran overcame the news of his family’s house burning down in Oklahoma just six days prior to the national championship game to lead the Blazers with 2,710 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2012. He also finished with 350 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, despite missing the second half of the Saginaw Valley and West Alabama (regular season) games. He also sat out the entire game against Fort Valley State.

Cochran had a deep receiving corps to throw the football to this season. Led by Gulf South Conference Offensive Player of the Year Gerald Ford, who hauled in 69 passes for 1,026 yards and 13 touchdowns, the Blazer passing game was nearly unstoppable this season. The Blazers averaged 250.4 passing yards per game.

Fellow juniors Seantavious Jones (51 catches, 922 yards, 13 touchdowns), Regginald Lewis (58 catches, 736 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Quin Roberson (33 catches, 378 yards, 4 touchdowns) all contributed to the Valdosta State passing game in 2012.

Defensively, the Blazers were led by junior linebacker Chris Pope, who finished the season with a team-high 127 tackles. Pope is now 88 tackles away from breaking the school’s all-time career tackles record, held by current Minnesota Viking Larry Dean (2007-10) at 368.

Defensive end Tyler Josey led the Blazers’ pass rush, finishing the year with 10 sacks, the eighth-most for a single season at VSU. Defensive end Tevin Davis led the team in tackles for loss with 16.  

Cornerback Matt Pierce, a preseason All-American, led the team with five interceptions, and returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the national championship game.

Valdosta State football coach David Dean won his second national championship as the Blazers’ head coach and third overall (he was an assistant coach on VSU’s 2004 championship team).

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