Hours after clinching the school’s fourth-ever trip to the NCAA Division II National Championship Game, the Valdosta State football team was left sitting on the tarmac of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, wondering if it would ever get home in time to prepare for next week’s title game opponent, Winston-Salem State.
The Blazers (11-2) were left sitting inside their AirTran Airways charter airplane for more than 2 1/2 hours early Sunday morning, waiting for buses to arrive to finish their journey back home to Valdosta.
After departing Minneapolis, Minn., narrowly missing a heavy snow storm, around 10:40 p.m. Eastern time, the Blazers’ plane was headed for Valdosta. With less than 30 minutes remaining in the flight, the pilot announced that heavy fog made it unsafe to attempt to land the airplane at Valdosta Regional Airport.
The Blazers were diverted to Atlanta and left waiting for buses to arrive and drive them back south to Valdosta.
Once the plane touched down in Atlanta, it was announced that federal aviation guidelines, passed following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, prohibited the Blazers from exiting the plane and waiting on the tarmac while their buses were en route to the airport.
Instead, players, coaches, administration and media were left sitting inside the airplane for nearly the same amount of time it took the Blazers to beat previously-unbeaten Minnesota State-Mankato, 35-19, in the national semifinals on Saturday.
Valdosta State’s buses finally arrived shortly after 3 a.m. The team arrived back in Valdosta just after 6:30 a.m.
The Blazers will face the undefeated Winston-Salem (N.C.) State Rams in the Division II national championship game Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala.
The Rams enter the game with a perfect 14-0 record, and are looking to become the first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference team, and just the fifth-ever undefeated team, to win a Division II national championship.
Meanwhile, Valdosta State is making its fourth-ever appearance in the championship game (the Blazers also played in the title game in 2002, 2004 and 2007). Saturday’s appearance will mark the Blazers’ second appearance under head coach David Dean, and first since beating Northwest Missouri State in 2007.
The Blazers will act as the visiting team for the first time in a championship game. They served as the home team the three previous times, including in 2004, when they knocked off Pittsburg State for the championship.
Tickets for the game go on sale today at 8:30 a.m. at the Valdosta State Athletic Ticket Office, located inside the P.E. Complex off of Baytree Road. VSU has 1,000 tickets for sale. All tickets are $20.
Saturday’s game is scheduled for a 1:04 p.m. Eastern kickoff in Florence.
The Valdosta Daily Times will have complete coverage of the week leading up to Saturday's national championship game, including coverage from Florence.