A year after an ugly off-the-field fight decided the 2013 CIAA Championship, the 2014 title was decided on the field. And it was good.
A solid crowd of 5,200 watched intently as Virginia State and Winston-Salem State battled on the not-quite frozen field turf of Durham County Stadium. Two programs that exactly one year early saw themselves thrust into the spotlight now found themselves engaged in a battle for what both wanted: a chance to call themselves champion.
Up in the press box, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams watched with an eagle-eye. This was the day she had waited the last 364 in anticipation for. A day when her conference would take a big step towards moving past what happened in Winston-Salem on Nov. 15, 2013.
Likewise, Virginia State AD Peggy Davis and her counterpart, WSSU’s Tonia Walker both cheered on their teams as they hoped for their first CIAA football title as heads of their school’s athletic program. All three women had to answer questions about last year’s game, as if Saturday’s matchup was almost an after thought.
And as for the game? It lived up to the hype. Virginia State took an early 14-0 lead before WSSU scored 17 unanswered and took a late lead in the fourth quarter. But ultimately redshirt freshman Niko Johnson would lead his team on the drive of his young life, making plays with his arms and his legs when it mattered most, and leading his team to a 21-17 win.
When the game was over, Virginia State (9-2) took home the CIAA Football Championship Trophy, its 11th overall and its first since 1996. Winston-Salem State (9-2) saw its streak of 30-plus wins against CIAA teams come to an end, and possibly its hopes for a playoff win in a fourth-straight season.
Regardless of who won or lost, the big winner on Saturday was the CIAA.
It was a clean, hard-hitting game in which the young men and the fans on both sides competed fiercely and without incident. When it was over, one team celebrated and another dealt with defeat, but both institutions had a lot to be proud of.
CIAA football has always been an afterthought in the conference. Last year’s ill-fated championship game was supposed to change that. If this year’s game didn’t do it, it laid the groundwork for it to happen soon.