The two teams vying for the NCAA Division II National Championship arrived Wednesday night, ready to get down to business.
Valdosta State and Winston-Salem State play for the title at noon Saturday at Braly Stadium in Florence.
This is Winston-Salem’s first national championship game appearance. It is the first for Valdosta since it won the title in 2007.
Winston-Salem’s team received warm greetings from the Shoals as they stepped onto the cold tarmac of Northwest Alabama Regional Airport in Muscle Shoals.
They again were welcomed by Shoals National Championship Committee members after receiving a police escort to Coldwater Inn in Tuscumbia.
Committee members gave handshakes, pats on the backs and congratulations as they welcomed the players, who were wearing red sweats, as they left the bus.
“I love the reception,” Winston-Salem head football coach Connell Maynor said. “These guys are doing a great job, greeting us and giving the police escort.
“This greeting is nothing but the best, and I expect that for this game. I thought I might have been Nick Saban and this was Bama, the way they are treating us.”
Maynor said he wants to keep as much of a routine as possible, while allowing the players to soak in the experience.
“This is a bowl atmosphere, and I want them to enjoy it, but at the same time realize it is a business trip,” he said.
About 9:20 p.m., Wednesday, two large buses with an escort from the Florence Police Department rolled into the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa parking lot with members of the Valdosta State football team.
For Coach David Dean, this is his fourth trip to the Division II National Championship game.
For the players, it was their first, and as they walked into the lobby of the hotel, they were greeted by a welcoming committee, as well as decorations of red and black balloons in the hallways.
“This is special for these kids, a lot like Christmas,” Dean said as he watched the players taking photos with their cellphones.
Dean said getting to the Shoals is what the team has been playing for since practice began in the spring.
“This morning, when we finished up practice, and the buses arrived, you could see the excitement starting to build in the guys,” Dean said. “And after we got going, the closer we got the more excited they were getting. When we got picked up for the escort and those lights started flashing, the atmosphere really changed and the bus got a lot nosier.
“But this is where we wanted to be, and we’re glad to be here.”
Shoals National Championship Committee member Mitch Dobbins said he expects a good atmosphere for the game.
“Both of these schools will travel very well,” Dobbins said. “There’s been a lot of excitement from both schools.”
Each school received an allotment of 1,000 tickets and are gobbling them up, Dobbins said.
Judy Keenum, of the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, said more than 4,000 tickets had been purchased as of Wednesday afternoon. Tickets are $25 each.
Anyone interested in purchasing one can contact the chamber at 256-764-4661 or buy one at the game.
“We’re hearing both teams plan to bring lots of fans,” Keenum said. “That will be great for us at the game and great for the Shoals area. We also expect lots of ticket sales on game day at the gate.”
This is the 27th straight year Florence has hosted the championship game. The Shoals places an emphasis on providing a bowl game feel to the event from the time the teams arrive.
Committee members and local officials greet the teams when they arrive, and local police departments provide escorts everywhere the teams go during their stay.
A noon news conference is today at the Guillot Center on the University of North Alabama campus. Coaches, select players and Harlon Hill Trophy finalists are available for individual interviews during that time.
Players are treated to the Championship Celebration tonight at the Florence-Lauderdale County Coliseum, Dobbins said. The event includes L.O. Bishop barbecue and games such as Simon Says.
“The teams come in to a very relaxed atmosphere at this event,” Dobbins said.
The Reading Initiative is Friday morning, during which players go into local schools and read to students.
“The initiative is one of our greatest events,” Dobbins said. “The local schools decorate in team colors and play the fight songs of the team that visits them.
“It’s designed around big kids telling the little kids about the importance of education. Then we provide tickets to the elementary schools so they can participate in the game.”
Dobbins said beginning this year the event has been renamed the Danny Killen Reading Initiative, in honor of Killen, a longtime championship game volunteer who died this year.
The teams also participate in a formal luncheon with Harlon Hill candidates Friday at the Guillot Center, Dobbins said.
“The head coaches come in and speak and one individual student-athlete from each school speaks,” he said.
The Harlon Hill Banquet is Friday night, during which the trophy is presented. The teams do not attend the banquet, giving them time to rest and prepare for Saturday’s game.
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.