Kesler, a 303-pound junior defensive tackle and former Shrine Bowler, wanted to savor the postseason semifinal victory first and foremost with his former Pirate teammates and close friends, Maurice Lewis and Larry Hearne Jr. All three former all-Robeson County players start for the second-ranked Rams (14-0) and have made significant impact this season.
Winston-Salem’s rout sets up Saturday's bout with Valdosta State (11-2) in the NCAA Division II National Championship at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala.
“It was crazy," Kesler said. "We were ahead and everybody was looking at each other like, 'we’re going to Alabama to play for a national championship.' It was amazing.”
Last season, Winston-Salem State saw its season end one win short of the championship game against Wayne State University. In Saturday’s semifinal win, Lewis rushed for a game-high 118 yards and two touchdowns, Hearne Jr. picked off a pass and Kesler collected two tackles while helping hold the Buffs to just 133 yards rushing.
“When the clock hit zero, I looked for them (Lewis and Hearne Jr.), gave them boys a hug and said, 'we did it,'” Kesler said. “It was probably one of the best moments of my life.”
Not far behind perhaps was a moment Kesler also shared with Lewis and Hearne Jr. nearly three years ago on National Signing Day inside Lumberton High's cafeteria.
Following their senior seasons under head coach Mike Brill, Kesler, Lewis and Hearne Jr. decided they would each sign with the same collegiate program, spurning nearby UNCP for Winston-Salem State. After a weekend in-home meeting with WSSU head coach Connell Maynor, a future with the Rams seemed like an ideal fit.
Jalaquon McNeill, The Robesonian's 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, was also part of the joint signing. McNeill suffered an injury last year as a sophomore and is no longer with the team.
“It was another opportunity for us to play together again,” said Kesler, who played in the East-West All-Star Game and was an All-Southeastern Conference star as a senior. “Not too many people can play with their teammates from high school (in college). We already had that chemistry. We just made it happen.”
The trio admits, even in their loftiest imaginations, seeing their names go from national letters of intent to national championship game day rosters wasn't a reality.
“We knew we’d be on a winning team,” Lewis said, “but we didn’t see a national championship game coming … We all just bought into our head coach’s system.”
Kesler, who said he’s “still in shock”, and Hearne Jr. echoed Lewis’ sentiment.
“I never could’ve imagined we’d do it like this and make it this far,” Hearne Jr. said. "But after the season we had last year, I could tell we were on a path to a national championship or at least play for one.”
Brill, who recently retired after six years at the helm of Lumberton and 30 years of coaching, has seen plenty of kids under his watch go on to play at the college level — and the NFL — but has never had a former player, let alone three, play in a national championship game.
That will change this weekend in Alabama and Brill, who had a family trip planned, is trying to tweak his schedule so he can see it firsthand.
“I’ve had some kids go on and do some great things, but playing for a national championship is kind of special,” Brill said. “I’m proud of the boys for what they’ve done. The big thing is it shows what we’ve got some kids that can do some great things.”
Reminiscing back on that National Signing Day in 2010, Brill knew WSSU’s Maynor was getting a special package of players when his Pirates signed with the CIAA competitor despite Lewis and Hearne Jr. barely being on the Rams' radar.
Time in Brill’s home, some game film and the players all-or-none signing motto changed Maynor’s tune.
“Now look at what’s going on with them,” Brill said. “He’s got three kids from Lumberton that are starting. All three of them were great players for me and are doing the same thing now. That speaks well for what we did with these kids. It’s a big deal for this town.”
The players are well aware — with the flood of congratulatory texts, phone calls and Facebook messages from back home — that they are representing not only Winston-Salem, but also Lumberton and Robeson County when they lace up for Saturday’s title game.
“It means a lot,” Kesler said. “We get a lot of support from back home. I told him (Coach Brill), that we got to put it on for Lumberton.”
Added Lewis: “It’s a great feeling to have the county on your back. To just know that their behind you and support you no matter what.”
Saturday's game from Florence, Ala. will be televised live on ESPN2 at 1 p.m.