October 24, 2013 12:18:29 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
SENATOBIA -- This is not exactly how former Columbus High School football standout Damian Baker thought his community college career would play out.
After a freshman campaign where his squad won eight games and Baker was the state's leading rushers, the encore has not been kind.
Saddled with probation by the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges, Northwest Mississippi Community College will limp into its season finale with a 1-7 overall record.
Northwest plays at No. 4 Jones Junior College at 2 p.m. Saturday in Ellisville.
"It has been a trying process, the whole season has been," Baker said. "In a lot of ways, it was like this season never really got started."
Northwest finished 8-2 last season. The Rangers dropped a 56-49 decision to East Mississippi Community College after a 6-0 start to the season. Northwest did qualify for the playoffs where it lost in the first round to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
The season ended with the highest of highs -- a 47-36 win over Kilgore College in the Brazos Valley Bowl.
Shortly after the bowl game, coach Ricky Woods announced his resignation after five seasons. Woods compiled a 35-13 record with the Rangers.
"We really didn't see that coming and I think it all took us by surprise," Baker said. "We had a successful season and were just a few plays away from going undefeated. You could tell we thought we had things going in the right direction."
During his freshman campaign, Baker ran for 1,161 yards to lead the entire MACJC, with 10 touchdowns. An all-state honorable mention selection, Baker played in all 10 games, while drawing eight starts. The 1,161 yards was eighth all-time in a single-season in Northwest history. Baker ran for 178 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game.
Northwest tabbed Brad LaPlante of Texas as its new head coach. The difficulties followed as the new coaching staff signed too many players to aid letters, placing the program on probation for the 2013 season.
"It is really hard when you have that meaning and you find out your season is over before it is even started," Baker said. "It is difficult when it is something out of your control. The season has tested us and it tested us with probation. It was a very sad day when we knew we couldn't make the playoffs."
As the season has unfolded, the misery has not ended for one of the state's most tradition-rich programs.
Northwest's only win was a 15-point victory over Coahoma Community College. The lightweights of the MACJC North Division -- Holmes Community College and Mississippi Delta Community College -- grabbed rare victories against the Rangers. Holmes had lost 10 straight in the series, while Delta had lost seven straight. EMCC widened the gap this season, taking a 79-7 victory in a series in which the previous five meetings had been decided by eight points or less.
"You play because you love the game," Baker said. "Playing the games though is the easy part. It is hard to put that extra running or extra weight lifting when you know the odds are stacked against you. You just keep working hard to better yourself and hoping to have some success."
Despite massively inconsistent play from the offensive line, Baker has still enjoyed a nice season.
Baker ranks second in the state with 717 rushing yards on 138 carries. Baker has scored five touchdowns. With 122 yards against the South Division champions Saturday, Baker will become the fifth Ranger to finish with 2,000 career rushing yards.
"It would be quite an accomplishment," said Baker, who is weighing numerous options for his senior college choice. "Even though the season has not gone as planned, I think that would be an incredible way to finish what has been an overall fun run."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter