August 29, 2017 9:21:59 AM
The East Mississippi Community College football team's season opener against Jones County Junior College on Thursday night will kick off arguably the program's biggest season.
Before Buddy Stephens became head coach, EMCC had little football history. Now, EMCC is one of the nation's best programs.
EMCC has captured five Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) State championships and three National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) championships.
The success has come with a cost. The successful Netflix "Last Chance U" documentary showed a lot of positives -- and a lot of negatives -- about the EMCC program from each of the past two seasons.
EMCC officials like to talk about the positive exposure. They talk about bookstore sales. They talk about internet clicks. They talk about people riding from all over the United States and stopping off to take pictures of Sullivan-Windham Field.
The series has been a boon for recruiting.
At the same time, some opponents have used series to recruit against EMCC. There are spots in the film that are tough to watch. Some outsiders have viewed the program and the school for that matter as a one-man (Stephens) dictatorship.
If you talk to EMCC officials, they perceive negative reaction to the film as "jealousy," which brings us to this season.
EMCC is loaded. Under Stephens, the squad always will be loaded. There will be a mix of talented players from the Golden Triangle. There also will be a nice mix of Division I transfers who land at EMCC for a second chance to play football.
There is little doubt the players love Stephens. You can talk to players from the early part of the decade before the success and they relate the lessons learned. They talk about Stephens being a father figure when they had no one. They talk about two years in Scooba helping them become the person they are today.
Senior college rosters are full of former EMCC players. Even some NFL and CFL rosters have an EMCC feel to them.
Stephens will break in two new coordinators -- David Boykin on offense and Cliff Collins on defense. Marcus Wood moved into administration after nine seasons as the offensive coordinator. Collins has been on staff for nine of Stephens' 10 seasons.
The MACJC North Division appears to be its strongest this century. At No. 2, EMCC is one of four North Division teams are in the top 11 in the NJCAA preseason Top 20, which means it should be more difficult to go through a regular season undefeated. It also means EMCC will be a shoo-in to play for a national title with an 11-0 record, maybe even a 10-1 mark.
The EMCC training camp roster had 12 players from the original eight-county district surrounding the school. That is far better than the three area players who were on the 2015 roster. A knock on Stephens has been signing more players statewide and focusing less on the immediate district.
When Dr. Rick Young hired Stephens, he hoped the program would achieve national success. The resources were given to make the program the nation's best. Sullivan-Windham Field is one of the state's premier facilities.
However, Young has retired. EMCC also has re-defined positions and brought in a full-time athletic director Randall Bradberry, who also was a longtime coach in the MACJC.
With a new president, new athletic director, and two new coordinators, a big season lies ahead. Even academic adviser Brittany Wagner, who became an overnight sensation when "Last Chance U" was released, is gone.
EMCC has painted the bull's eye on its back. It made sure to paint it thick and wide.
The early championship teams of Stephens had no problem running up the score. They were prideful, boastful, and willing to make a statement on any terrain.
Now, some other MACJC schools have pumped money into their programs and tried to close the gap. Still, the state belongs to EMCC. They are the favorite for state championship honors this season.
Northwest Mississippi C.C. (No. 6), Northeast Mississippi C.C. (No. 9), and Holmes C.C. (No. 11) follow EMCC in the preseason NJCAA poll.
Stephens has won 52 of 55 games against the North Division. He is 9-1 versus Northwest Mississippi C.C. and 8-1 versus Itawamba C.C.
Many expect business as usual this season.
The Lions will be tall, quick, and well coached. They will play with swagger. They will play with pride. They will play for their coach. They will play for one another. They will think they are really good.
They won't play before the cameras. Netflix has moved on to Independence C.C. in Kansas for a third installment of its series, which is best for all parties. The series was creating a divide and for the program it's best that it not continue.
Any way you slice it, it's a big season. EMCC has appeared more vulnerable the last two seasons. However, the Lions still have won 19 of their last 21 games.
With a lofty ranking and a strong North Division schedule, the table is set. EMCC will play for a national championship if it wins 11 games.
The fight is behind the Lions. The suspensions are behind them. The Netflix documentary is behind them.
The quest for a championship trophy starts Thursday night. It starts in the house Stephens helped build.
Here is hoping there is no drama -- on or off the field -- in 2017.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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