September 17, 2013 10:12:46 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
FULTON -- The Itawamba Community College football team is used to 3-0 starts.
The Indians have accomplished that feat in back-to-back seasons, but the nation's No. 12 team (prior to this week's rankings) wants to change the script. Last season, the Indians lost their next three games and despite a strong finish missed the playoffs.
Former Noxubee County High School standout LaDarrell Hunt is a sophomore this year for the Indians. He vows a different team will take the field at 7 p.m. Thursday to try to help ICC beat Holmes Community College in a North Division matchup in Goodman to go to 4-0.
"This team has really grown up and matured a lot since last season," Hunt said. "Everybody was real excited when we won our first three games last season. This is an entirely different team. Missing the playoffs hurt us badly. We are really hungry and motivated to keep the winning going."
Despite finishing tied for second in the North Division three straight seasons, ICC has yet to earn a playoff berth. With perennial power Northwest Mississippi C.C. on probation, the Indians have a better chance to realize their goal.
ICC opened the North Division portion of its schedule last Thursday night with a 23-13 home victory against Mississippi Delta C.C. In the victory, Hunt had two receptions for 24 yards.
"Hopefully when we look back over the season we will be able to look up at this game as a turning point for the positive," ICC coach Jon Williams. "We weren't focused and did not play with much discipline, and that's something we take pride in being a big part of our football program, but thanks to a great effort by the defense we were able to find a way to win."
Not playing its best and coming away with a victory is another sign of ICC's growth.
"Sometimes the team took things a little too easy last year," Hunt said. "It's a long season, and you have to be ready every week. You can take plays off because each of the other teams you play has some playmakers. I have seen a different team this year during summer workouts and during practice in the fall. There was more determination. Everybody was doing that one extra thing."
As a freshman, Hunt appeared in all nine games, rushing for 177 yards with a touchdown. He also had 14 receptions for 87 yards. ICC likes to run the ball more than most of the state's junior college programs, so Hunt's versatility pays huge dividends.
"LaDarrell can hurt you in so many different ways," Williams said. "He has speed and he has a great work ethic. He is the kind of player who comes to practice every day working hard to become a better player. We plan to keep using him in different ways. As our offense continues to grow and develop, he will be a big part of that success."
This season, ICC scored 40 points in back-to-back wins against South Division opponents East Central C.C. (40-7) and Southwest Mississippi C.C. (40-6). A lack of focus after building a big lead hurt the Indians against Delta. ICC also had three special teams turnovers. However, the team still moved to 3-0.
"The sky is the limit for this team," said Hunt, who has seven rushes, six catches this season, and is a leading kick return man. "We can be as good as we want to be. The thing about this team is depth. Now when (quarterback) Griff (Loftis) is back there, he has so many options. We have more speed and this team is together more. We are like a big group of brothers on and off the field."
Holmes C.C. is winless this season. Last year, the Bulldogs derailed the Indians' undefeated run with a controversial 12-10 win. It scored an early touchdown on a disputed fumble recovery and later made that score stand up.
"Their 0-3 record is very deceiving," Williams said. "They've played the No. 1 and No. 19 teams in the nation to open the season and dropped a three-point game last week (at Northwest). We are going to be facing a really good football team hungry for a win, and hopefully we will be able to go on the road and match their intensity."
ICC can't afford to look ahead. However, the following Saturday ICC will play host to Northwest for homecoming. Northwest won last season's meeting, 49-7. The final two games of the season will include Northeast Mississippi C.C. and East Mississippi C.C.. Those two opponents were the preseason 1-2 pick in the preseason poll for the North Division.
"Now that we are entering the division part of our schedule, every game is huge," Hunt said. "We began the season with the goal of making the playoffs and winning a championship. We know we have that capability. The main thing is not letting up. Even though we are ranked and even though our fans really believe in us, we can't quit working now. There are too many things left for us to prove."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter