October 31, 2012 11:46:47 PM
By Scott Walters
East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens had to approach his team in a different manner this week.
After all it had been 24 months since his team last suffered a defeat.
The 10th-ranked Lions saw their hopes of a repeat national championship dashed with a stunning 24-23 loss at Itawamba Community College Saturday night.
Now, the Lions must simply be content with a third state championship in four seasons.
The quest for that title is very much alive and resumes Saturday when North Division champion EMCC plays host to South Division runner-up Copiah-Lincoln Community College in a semifinal game of the MACJC state playoffs.
Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. at Sullivan-Windham Field.
"I am not sure how we will respond," Stephens said. "This is an unusual situation for us. Obviously, you want to say the kids will put it behind them and come out and play a lot better.
"But you wanting that and that becoming reality are two separate things. I am anxious to see what happens."
The Lions will extend their school record for playoff appearances with a fifth straight Saturday.
EMCC clinched its fourth North Division title under Stephens with a 56-49 victory over Northwest Mississippi Community College two weeks ago.
The step backward was a huge one a week later. The Lions could not overcome the hangover, falling down 14-0 to Itawamba early.
EMCC would right the ship and actually lead 17-14 and 23-21 before falling on a 43-yard field goal in the waning seconds.
"We really didn't respond to the challenge," Stephens said. "We were a step slow and we didn't match the other team's intensity. That is the big disappointment. Even though we had the division secured, there was still so much to play for."
EMCC won all 12 games it played last season en route to a first-ever national championship. Despite winning that title, EMCC had been exiled from No. 1 in this season's poll for better than a month.
After beating six ranked opponents in 2011, the Northwest win was the first ranked win for this season.
"We really have played with our backs against the wall the entire season," said EMCC sophomore defensive back Frank Richardson said. "Even when we do well, it is like people expected more. We really have relished that challenge this season."
Perhaps that challenge finally did the Lions in. EMCC could have matched the nation's longest-ever junior college win streak with a win over ICC, two playoff wins, a bowl win and two additional wins to start the 2013 season.
A year ago, EMCC was an unproven commodity simply trying to better a 5-5 mark. This season, the Lions began the season as the undisputed king on the throne.
Few challenges have followed. EMCC has trailed only four opponents this season and only Northwest and Itawamba enjoyed second-half leads. The Itawamba contest was the first time all season the Lions went in for a halftime address trailing on the scoreboard.
"We were undisciplined and we lost our edge," Stephens said. "To lose is one thing. To lose and do things that are not characteristic of your program is a totally different thing."
EMCC was called for six personal fouls against Itawamba. After grabbing a 23-21 lead, a missed extra point opened the door for Itawamba to rally.
The Lions have been able to hang their hats on special teams this season. Even in defeat Saturday, the Lions recovered an onsides kick, averaged 45 yards per punt and had two different kick returns greater than 50 yards.
Meanwhile, Co-Lin comes to town bubbling with confidence. The 15th-ranked Wolfpack took the South Division by storm, winning five of six division games.
The Wolfpack is back in the playoffs for the first time winning the South Division regular season championship in 2010. Ironically, Co-Lin beat EMCC 48-21 in those playoffs. That was EMCC' s last loss before the Itawamba debacle.
The contest matches the state's top two passers. EMCC's Quez Johnson has thrown for 2,309 yards and 25 touchdowns, while Co-Lin's Chandler Rogers has thrown for 2,105 yards and 17 touchdowns.
In a MACJC rarity, all four playoff teams are ranked. No. 7 Gulf Coast C.C. or No. 9 Northwest Mississippi C.C. awaits the winner next Saturday for the state championship.
EMCC beat Gulf Coast in both the 2009 and 2011 title matches.
"We are going to have to pick ourselves up in a hurry, or we are in major trouble," Stephens said. "Play like this for a second week in a row and we will be packing our gear up. Co-Lin will want this. We have to want it, too."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter