FLORENCE, Ala. – In many ways, Valdosta State’s convincing 35-7 victory against Winston-Salem State in the 2012 NCAA Division II Football Championship on Saturday was unlike the journey the Blazers took to get there. Mainly, they never trailed in the game.

In another way, a very big way, Valdosta used the lessons it learned through early-season trials and tribulations to make big play after big play and keep Winston-Salem, who came into the game undefeated and ranked second in the country, from making a serious run.

The result was the third national championship in Valdosta State history, a title born from a 2-2 start to the season that came to a head in a Week 4 loss to West Alabama.

“At that time, we felt like we were a lot better football team than we really were,” Valdosta head coach David Dean admitted. “We didn’t go out and play very well. We had a lot of turnovers in the ballgame, we didn’t tackle very well. We just did not play the way we could play, That loss, I think, woke us up.”

It certainly got junior wide receiver Gerald Ford’s attention, and Ford soon got his teammates’ attention, according to junior quarterback Cayden Cochran.

“He said we can count this game as a gut check,” Cochran recalled. “You’re either going to come locked in, or it’s going to make this thing more disappointing, and it started the next day at weights and carried over. Every single day it got better and got stronger and we grew as a team and got closer and I think it was at that moment when he looked us all in the eye and said, ‘If you’re not with me, get out. But if you’re with us all, you stay here and we’ll move this thing forward.’ And every single one of us kind of manned up at that point.”

Dean used coach-speak to get across his message: “Take everything one at a time; live in the moment; not look ahead, not look behind.”

Although Dean bent his own rule when addressing his team after the West Alabama loss.

“When we walked in the locker room after that game, I challenged those guys; I said, ‘Lets get an opportunity to play those guys again.’ ”

Indeed, Valdosta made good with a 49-21 victory against West Alabama in the opening round of the playoffs.

“I think that probably if you can say a loss was the turning point in the season, I think it was,” Dean said.

The Blazers finished the season on a 10-game winning streak, but many times it wasn’t as easy as they made it look Saturday.

“We’ve faced adversity all year long,” Dean said.  “There were several times during the year that we were behind and had to score late to win or were coming from behind after the half and winning. We’ve been behind in every playoff game that we had until [Saturday], and in two of those we were behind in the second half and had to come back and win. Our kids never panicked. There’s just never a sense of panic on our sideline. The kids believe in what we’re doing.”

That was never more evident that when Winston-Salem made its only run at Valdosta. Trailing 21-0, the Rams scored in the third quarter and were threatening to do so again when junior linebacker Jeremy Grable stripped quarterback Kameron Smith of the ball on the 1-yard line and fellow junior linebacker Chris Pope recovered in the end zone. The Blazers then went on offense and drove 80 yards in 17 plays, covering 7 minutes, 30 seconds of clock time.

Freshman back Cedric O’Neal carried the ball eight times for 35 yards during the drive, including two third-down conversions, and Cochran completed passes on three third-down plays, the latter a 17-yard strike to Quin Roberson to cap the drive.

“The team has leaders everywhere, from Matt Pierce [he of the 96-yard opening kickoff return] to Cayden Cochran,” said O’Neal, who rushed for a game-high 140 yards on 24 carries, including a 24-yard touchdown run from fourth-and-1 in the first quarter. “I’m the baby of the group. They tell me everyday that it’s just about time for me to grow up. That’s in practice, the weight room, in the position meetings and team meetings.”

As it turns out, O’Neal was just doing what everyone else was doing in Valdosta’s season of maturing.