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MEAC champ North Carolina Central hopes to reverse past Celebration Bowl heartbreak

Six years after losing championship by one point, the Eagles are heading to their second championship game

NORFOLK, Va. – In 2016, the first – and last – time North Carolina Central University went to the Cricket Celebration Bowl in Atlanta, Trei Oliver had just completed his first season as a defensive coordinator for Southern University, and many of the players on NCCU’s current roster were still in high school.

North Carolina Central quarterback Davius “Pee Wee” Richard didn’t watch the game but said he has heard about how the Eagles lost: After NCCU scored a touchdown in the final minutes with Grambling State in the lead at 10-9, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty extended the extra point attempt to 35 yards. Grambling ultimately blocked the attempt, causing the Eagles to lose 10-9 and giving the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) its only Celebration Bowl victory to date.

“I was standing up the whole time. [When he missed the kick,] I just sat down in my seat. I was in disbelief,” said former North Carolina Central player Joshua Sims-Crowell, a member of the Eagles team that made the jump from Division II to Division I to join the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) as a full-time member in 2011. “As an alum at that time having to see all these things from the school down the hallway [North Carolina A&T] to really poke fun at us [and] talk about us being the only school in the MEAC that lost, how we lost, and they coined it as a very North Carolina Central fashion. It still affects me to this day.”

As a North Carolina Central alumnus himself, Oliver is aware of the heartbreak the fan base suffered six years ago. He hopes to lead the team to a happier ending this season, following the Eagles’ dominant 48-14 victory Saturday over Norfolk State. The win secured the MEAC’s automatic bid to the Celebration Bowl and the Eagles’ second trip there.

“I’m so excited about it. I thought we played well tonight, well [and] good enough to win the game,” Oliver said Saturday. “But we worked really hard all offseason. Guys sacrificed their summer breaks and vacations to give themselves the opportunity to be able to go to a championship game and win a championship.

“It starts all year long and throughout the summer, as far as the culture and being disciplined. So I don’t think that we’ll have any bonehead penalties like that, that cost us the game,” Oliver said. “You have to be able to weather the distractions. There’s gonna be a lot of distractions in Atlanta. We just have to continue to stay focused, and I thought the guys have done a really good job up until this point with that.”

Throughout the season, the Eagles have attributed their success to their focus, especially after early losses to South Carolina State and Campbell. A season ago, a loss to South Carolina State cost North Carolina Central a trip to the Celebration Bowl. This season, South Carolina State’s three losses and North Carolina Central’s ability to win its remaining conference games paved the way for the Eagles to win a share of the conference title and the bowl berth.

The Eagles will face Tennessee Tech on Saturday with nothing on the line other than pride, but Richard doesn’t believe the team will lose focus after accomplishing its goal.

“That’s not really gonna be the challenge, for real. We done been through a lot this season. Keeping the focus, that’s not gonna be a problem. We could have lost focus back when we lost to South Carolina State. But we push through it. We could have lost focus when we lost to Campbell, but push through it,” Richard said. “We’re gonna enjoy the win. Monday we’re back in the lab. It’s a whole different ballgame. We battle out there.”

Sims-Crowell gives a lot of credit to Oliver for turning around the program and to the next generation of Eagles players for upholding the North Carolina Central standard.

“We expect to be in these situations. … We know that this is where we are supposed to be most of the time. But this is an opportunity for us to be able to really show the world … [A win] would mean that we have now re-arrived at the standard and we’ve reestablished ourselves,” Sims-Crowell said. “I’m excited about us getting the chance to really show the world this is who we are. This is what we do.”

Earlier this season, after North Carolina Central defeated rival North Carolina A&T in the Duke’s Mayo Classic and upset New Hampshire, which was ranked No. 25, the Eagles briefly entered the FCS Top 25 poll.

No other MEAC teams dominated the conference during the season. Those circumstances and North Carolina Central’s tough schedule have prepared the Eagles to defend the MEAC’s crown.

“We play a very physical brand of football in this conference,” Oliver said. “It usually starts with the run [and] usually pretty good quarterback play. But it’s a grind every week, and you have to bring your A-game.”

Oliver will walk into the Celebration Bowl for the first time as a head coach, but he won’t lack experience. He was the defensive backs coach at North Carolina A&T in 2015 when the Aggies played in the inaugural Celebration Bowl. Oliver’s secondary had a deflection and anchored the Aggies’ goal line stand in the final minutes to help lead them to a victory, the first of four Celebration Bowl titles the Aggies would win. 

Oliver is familiar with SWAC football and its style of play from his Celebration Bowl experience and three seasons as a defensive coordinator in the conference. Since becoming coach of the Eagles in 2019, Oliver is 1-1 against SWAC opponents: In 2021, the Eagles defeated Alcorn State in their season opener at the Cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge but lost a game by one point to Mississippi Valley State later in the season.

The Eagles’ Celebration Bowl opponent won’t be known until the SWAC championship game Dec. 3.

“Regardless of who we play, the fans are going to travel deep,” Oliver said. “They will attempt to create a hostile environment.”

The MEAC leads the Celebration Bowl series 5-1, and is currently riding a four-game winning streak, one MEAC commissioner Sonja Stills believes will continue.

“North Carolina Central has had an outstanding team and had an outstanding run this season. The best team is going to represent us at the Celebration Bowl and I could not be happier,” Stills said. “MEAC has always had outstanding football, and we’ve shown that with our streak in the Celebration Bowl, and I expect nothing less going into 2022 in Atlanta. North Carolina Central Eagles are going to do their thing.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."