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Winston-Salem returns to D-II, rolls to title game

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - Winston-Salem State's financial problems are one reason the Rams are playing for the Division II national championship this weekend.

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The historically black university was on track to move to Division I when budget woes forced officials to abort the plan to join the Football Championship Subdivision a few years ago.

So, the Rams returned to Division II and made themselves right at home.

In their third season back at this level, they're 14-0 and preparing to face Valdosta State on Saturday in Florence, Ala., with their first national title at stake.

``I don't know if it justifies (the decision), but I know winning solves a lot of problems, and people like winners,'' third-year coach Connell Maynor said. ``If you win, that will make the people that wanted us to stay I-AA kind of forget about that and say, `You know what, this is all right. This is pretty cool.'''

The move back down a rung on the NCAA's ladder sure seems to have agreed with Winston-Salem State.

The alma mater of former NFL players Yancey Thigpen and Oronde Gadsden has twice won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association - the nation's oldest conference for HBCUs - since rejoining the league in 2010.

That came shortly after school officials decided the transition to Division I - and the expenses that came with it - just wasn't worth it. All those road trips to Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games in Florida and Virginia began to add up, and so did the increased expenses for scholarships to meet Division I standards.

School officials said that the athletic department ran a deficit of $1.8 million during the fiscal year before the move back to Division II. Chancellor Donald Reaves said at the time projected the deficit would grow to $15 million by this year.

For the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, the Rams had a balanced athletic budget of about $4.4 million - making them one of the bigger spenders in the CIAA.

``The biggest problem with that is money - you've got to fund 15-16 sports ... (and) those sports are traveling to FAMU, Bethune-Cookman, Norfolk State on a Wednesday night to play volleyball, that takes a lot of money,'' Maynor said. ``It takes a lot of funding. We've got some people out there that want to fund the money, I think it wouldn't be a problem to go back to I-AA. But everybody that wants to go back don't have (the) money.''

The Rams might not be playing a Division I schedule anymore, but they certainly have plenty of Division I talent.

``These are not your average CIAA guys, your average D-II guys,'' said running back Bryce Sherman, one of two transfers from South Carolina.

The school's roster includes seven transfers from Bowl Subdivision teams - including one from each of the state's four Atlantic Coast Conference programs. Defensive back Dominique Tate, a Wake Forest transfer, shares a Winston-Salem apartment with current Demon Deacons running back Josh Harris.

Seven more Rams came from FCS schools.

``Did we break a rule? We didn't? Oh, so we're smarter than you,'' Maynor said, directing his comments toward those critical of the high number of transfers.

``You've got to get the game plan and get out there and do the same thing we're doing,'' Maynor said. ``Get your program on the same level we are and quit complaining about the transfers we've got. That's how you win games.''

Nobody can argue with the results.

As a team, the Rams rank in the top 10 in eight major statistical categories. They're fifth in the division with an average of 42.5 points per game; are sixth against the run, allowing an average of 87.7 yards; and are fourth in turnover margin at plus-1.36.

Only three games have been decided by fewer than 10 points - and two of those came in the first two weeks. The third was a 21-17 win over Indiana (Pa.) in the Division II quarterfinals.

Now it's on to the title game and a chance to deliver the school's first championship become the first HBCU to win the Division II crown.

``We're still kind of in shock, but we're ready, though,'' Sherman said. ``We've been thinking about it since the summertime. Coach has been telling us about wanting to win a national championship. We all believe. It's here now. We've got to play hard. We're ready, though.''

AP NEWS
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The Associated Press
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