By Matt Stewart
VALDOSTA -- Valdosta State football is spoiled. Coach Chris Hatcher admits it.
After winning the Gulf South Conference title each of Hatcher's first three seasons, the GSC title became a formality.
That mindset is no more.
After North Alabama took the title away from Valdosta State last season, the first time it happened in Hatcher's tenure, the Blazers' are back to focusing on the conference title.
"The first three years we were spoiled," Hatcher said. "The goal we set was to win the national title. That's still our goal, but we'd forgotten about winning the conference title. That became something that just happened along the way.
"There was a void left last year."
The Blazers now have that title in their sights with only West Georgia standing in the way. Valdosta State aims for its fourth GSC crown in the last five years tonight in Carrollton. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (radio 107.9 F.M.).
And now that the Blazers have their priorities in order, Hatcher says the old feelings he felt four years ago in Carrollton, when Valdosta State won its first GSC title under Hatcher, have returned.
The Blazers (8-1, 8-0 Gulf South) need a win to guarantee themselves a share of the conference title. They're tied with undefeated Arkansas Tech, who must beat Central Arkansas today to force a split championship.
Of course, that's only part of the circumstances surrounding tonight. The Blazers, ranked No. 2 in the Southeast Region, can also put themselves in a position to receive a first round bye in the Division II playoffs, which begin next Saturday.
"The coaches need (the bye week) more than the players do," said Hatcher, whose team has played 10 straight weeks after opening the season with an off week. "We're not a very deep team. Our starters have taken a lot of reps. We're a little beat up so it's a huge deal for the team, but we've got to beat West Georgia."
Hatcher said he hopes a win tonight will guarantee the Blazers of a first round bye, but it won't be set in stone until the final region rankings are announced Sunday.
With a win over Central Arkansas, which is ranked No. 11 in the region poll, it's possible a 10-0 Arkansas Tech team could jump Valdosta State for the No. 2 spot in the region.
The only thing the Blazers can control is their game against West Georgia (2-6, 2-5 Gulf South), which defeated North Alabama 38-21 in Florence, Ala., one week after Valdosta State escaped Florence with a 24-20 win.
"They've been down all year, but they beat UNA very badly," Hatcher said. "It's a rivalry game. We're playing for the peach basket and we've got a lot more to play for than West Georgia. I expect it to be another battle."
West Georgia is led by senior running back Michael Alexis, who had 184 yards last week against North Alabama, and senior quarterback Lucas McMichen, who threw for 275 yards a week ago.
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