The disappointment of losing in the Division II semifinals a year ago provided the motivation for Winston-Salem State to take the next step in the program's progression in 2012.
Coach Connell Maynor recalled the 2011 home-field loss to Wayne State (Mich.) earlier this week.
"We were 13-0 last year and got beat in the semifinals at home," Maynor said. "This year we were 13-0 and we didn't want that to happen again."
It didn't. Winston-Salem became the first historically black university in 29 years to qualify for the Division II championship game with a 41-18 victory over West Texas A&M. The victory capped a season in which the Rams dominated the competition. They enter Saturday's championship game against Valdosta State having played only three games decided by less than eight points. All of the others have resulted in WSSU wins by an average margin of 47-15.
The results weren't all that unexpected for Maynor.
"We had high expectations coming into the season," he said. "Last year we had only 10 seniors, and we lost only six starters. We had to find people to fill those holes, and we have. The guys who replaced those starters have made plays for us."
The Rams feature a balanced attack led by Kamron Smith who has thrown 42 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. Thirty-eight of his TD passes have gone to a trio of receivers — Jahuann Butler (12), Jameze Massey (14) and Jamal Williams (12). Running back Maurice Lewis has rushed for 969 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The progression to national championship contender has been gradual. The Rams, who play in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, had a reputation for being able to qualify but not last very long in the playoffs. That changed with last year's run to the semifinals. Now, the Rams have earned a national reputation and were ranked as high as No. 2 this season.
Maynor is confident his team isn't just satisfied to be in Florence for the championship game.
"I don't think so," he said. "We celebrated getting to the national championship game but we've had this as a goal all season."
Who: Valdosta State (11-2) vs. Winston-Salem State (14-0)
When: Saturday, noon
Where: Braly Stadium, Florence
Tickets: $25, available by calling 256-764-4661 or at www.d2championship. com or at the gate.