October 24, 2012 10:23:18 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
SCOOBA -- Frank Richardson envisioned a lot of good times when he left New Hope High School and signed to play football at East Mississippi Community College.
With his playing career at EMCC down to a handful of games, Richardson can admit it has been even more fun than he thought.
"It has been an incredible experience, an incredible ride," said Richardson, a sophomore defensive back at EMCC. "I thought this was a tremendous opportunity for me. It has been that and a whole lot more."
With Richardson in uniform, EMCC has played 20 games - and won all 20 of them. The third-ranked Lions will look for No. 21 and a second straight undefeated regular season Saturday when they travel to take on Itawamba Community College.
The regular season finale for each team and ICC's Homecoming is set for a 4 pm. kickoff at Eaton Stadium in Fulton.
EMCC wrapped up its fourth North Division title in the past five seasons with a 56-49 home win over Northwest Mississippi Community College Thursday night.
"It feels great to clinch a playoff berth and a home playoff game," Richardson said. "From the beginning of the season, we knew the Northwest game was going to be our biggest game of the year. We really had to bring it. I thought we did just that."
EMCC brought it on offense. The Lions turned in their best all-around performance on that side of the ball, collecting 34 first downs and 675 yards of total offense. NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Week quarterback Quez Johnson threw for a career-high 422 yards and accounted for seven total touchdowns.
"When we came out and scored on the first three plays of the game," Richardson said. "It really helped our psyche a lot. It told the defense our offense had our back in this game."
Prior to that contest, the Lions had dominated on defense. EMCC entered the contest with back-to-back shutouts and had a string of 10 straight scoreless quarters. The Lions had allowed only 45 points all seasons, before allowing 49 in the victory.
"Northwest really gave us all they had," said Richardson, who is fifth on the team with 35 total tackles and third on the team with five pass break-ups, as well as an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery. "We started out sluggish but we never got down. On defense, we always know the big play is coming. It finally came."
As it has so many times this season, EMCC saw the momentum of the game totally flipped on defense. The Lions had five pass interceptions, with four of those coming in the second half. EMCC battled back from a 42-35 third-quarter deficit. It was the first time this season EMCC trailed in the second half of a game.
"We have a ridiculous amount of speed on this defense," said the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Richardson. "It is like one minute a receiver is open and the next minute we have three guys there. I think that is what makes it so tough on the other teams. They can't judge our speed. They are trying to complete passes when the targets are not there."
Improved defense is a big reason why the EMCC national title defense is still alive entering the final week of the regular season. A year ago, the Lions won all 12 games, including the school's second-ever state championship and first-ever national championship.
The mind-set to be even better on defense was fostered during off-season workouts.
"The coaches pushed us a lot harder during the summer," Richardson said. "We have meetings every night. We go over the game plan for hours. Everybody knows their assignments. We know what the other team is running before they run it."
EMCC fifth-year head coach Buddy Stephens likes the leadership provided by Richardson and the rest of his sophomore teammates.
"Frank came here with a lot of athletic ability," Stephens said. "He is a hard worker and he has made himself into a great player. He also had that leadership characteristic. He is always lifting the younger players up. Communicating and caring for one another is a big reason for our defensive success this season."
Richardson learned that work ethic at New Hope, where he had 53 total tackles his junior year. That particular New Hope squad won 11 games and advanced to the North State championship game. The Trojans won eight games and made it to the second round with Richardson as a senior star on defense.
"I learned so many valuable lessons at New Hope," Richardson said. "Those lessons helped me every day here. I came here with the right attitude and I came in ready to help my teammates out. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity."
In a few weeks, Richardson will be looking for another set of teammates to help out. He already looks forward to the next couple of weeks when he can narrow his senior college list down and find a place to continue his football career.
"Right now all of my focus is on winning a national championship," Richardson said. "It starts with Itawamba Saturday. We only have a few games left and we need to be playing our best. As far as the future goes, I am very excited about the prospects."
The future approaches as quickly as the 2012 season has come and gone. Once last season's bowl game victory over Arizona Western College went in the books, Richardson said there was no time to rest.
"Winning the championship last year has motivated us and pushed us harder each day," Richardson said. "Every day, we break it down with 'Lions, Champions'. That is because the No. 1 goal around here is the national championship. Our coaches are great at helping us focus on one play a time. When you focus on one play at a time, the plays add up quickly."
And for Richardson and EMCC, so does the fun.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter