October 23, 2013 10:22:11 AM
Being a lifelong football player who went on to become a coach, Buddy Stephens has seen his fair share of heart-breaking defeats.
Few sting as bad as the No. 3 East Mississippi Community College football team's 24-23 loss to archrival Itawamba C.C. in the final regular-season game in 2012.
The loss snapped a 20-game, two-season winning streak. The 2011 National Junior College Athletic Association national champions appeared poised to defend their championship before that crushing defeat on a damp, overcast afternoon at Eaton Field in Fulton.
"That result added a little spice to the rivalry. There is no doubt about it," said Stephens, who is in his sixth season at EMCC. "We didn't play well and they played great. We did not do the little things right toward the end of last season, and that cost us. We have worked hard this entire season to make sure those types of problems do not get us again."
Both teams will bring similar resumes into the rematch at 7 p.m. Thursday at Sullivan-Windham Field in Scooba. EMCC is ranked second nationally and enters the final week of the regular season at 8-0 and 5-0 in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges North Division. ICC is 6-2 and 4-1. A 5-0 start, the school's first, had ICC ranked fourth in the nation. Losses to Copiah-Lincoln C.C. and Coahoma C.C. followed. ICC beat Northeast Mississippi C.C. 36-33 last week in Fulton to clinch a North Division playoff spot.
EMCC also clinched a playoff berth last week with a 79-7 win over Northwest Mississippi C.C.. EMCC is in the playoffs for a sixth-straight season, while ICC is in the postseason for the first time since 2007.
"East Mississippi has one of the primer programs in the nation," ICC fourth-year coach Jon Williams said. "They have put together quite a run. Our victory last year helped get the program back into the national spotlight. Even though that was last year and is in the past, the team was able to build on that success this season."
The winner of Thursday's game will secure the North Division's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. EMCC, which has five shutouts, has clinched a share of the division title -- the fifth title under Stephens. ICC last won the division in 2007.
In the opening-round of the MACJC playoffs Nov. 2, the EMCC-ICC winner will play host to South Division runner-up and fifth-ranked Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. (7-1). The loser will travel to South Division champion and fourth-ranked Jones Junior College (7-1). The winners play Nov. 9 for the MACJC state championship.
EMCC rode that home-field advantage to a pair of wins and the state championship in 2009 and 2011. EMCC's only home loss in the past three seasons was a 47-46 setback to Copiah-Lincoln C.C. in the MACJC first round last season.
"Being able to play the playoff games at home is a huge advantage," EMCC sophomore quarterback Dontreal Pruitt said. "This is what we have worked the last 11 months for, to be undefeated and to be division champions. It means a lot when all of your goals can be reached in the last game of the season. This is a special team, and we want to show everybody what the Lions are made of. This is our chance to step up and really put our names in the history books, so we are excited about that opportunity."
EMCC won all nine regular-season games in 2011. It beat Hinds C.C. and Gulf Coast in the playoffs before defeating Arizona Western College in the El Toro Bowl to win its first national championship. That squad won by an average margin of 24.3 points per game. This season's squad is winning at a clip of 63.75 points per game. EMCC hasn't trailed this season, and only once has the team been tied during a game. However, EMCC will complete the regular season without playing a ranked opponent.
"We know how to balance hard work and having fun," EMCC freshman reserve quarterback and running back Todd Mays said. "I have never seen a team more focused. Losing the last two games last year (each by a point) changed the whole demeanor of the program. It told us we can't take anything for granted. That is why this team is so grounded. We have a great time together and we love to have fun. Between the lines, it is all serious. We can't let things get away like they did last year."
Pruitt is second in the nation with 2,746 yards and 33 touchdowns. Mays is fifth nationally with 13 rushing touchdowns.
"You see a team that does everything right offensively," Williams said. "It is a situation where you know you will have to make some big plays on defense. You will also have to match them with scores. The goal is to put yourself in a position to win in the fourth quarter."
ICC did just that a year ago. The EMCC numbers were staggering then as well. Still, the Indians competed for four quarters and won in the series for the first time since 2006 to give Williams his biggest victory.
"We lost our attention to detail last season," Pruitt said. "(After the season), we talked about the losses and how to not let that happen again. Each week we strive for the perfect game. You never are really ever going to play a perfect game. However, we want to go out there and try to play that perfect game. That is what motivates us.
"This team has come a long way from the end of last season. We plan to write a different ending this time."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
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