October 10, 2017 6:42:32 PM
Prior to Buddy Stephens' arrival at East Mississippi Community College, all of the school's football awards would fit on a card table.
In his 10 seasons, Stephens has made a habit of building a trophy case and then expanding it.
Another championship is on the line when No. 1 EMCC takes on No. 10 Northwest Mississippi Community College in Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division play.
Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Bobby Franklin Field in Senatobia.
"We set our goals higher than a (MACJC North Division) championship," EMCC sophomore defensive back Duke Upshaw said. "However, it is a start. This is how we know the real season is here. We use this as the first milestone. The championships get bigger and better from here."
EMCC can wrap up a seventh straight North Division championship with a win Thursday night. Northwest must win here and on Oct. 26 against Northeast Mississippi Community College to win the division title.
EMCC has won 28 straight division games, including seven straight in the series with Northwest. The Lions have won the division eight times in Stephens' first nine seasons.
"It's an accomplishment and we take pride in that," Stephens said. "It's funny that a division championship felt like the end of the world when we first got started here. Now, it's an expectation. The best thing winning the division does is that it gives you home-field for the playoffs. That is why this championship stands out."
EMCC beat Northwest 38-30 in last season's state championship game. That close outcome was an exception to the norm. Prior to that contest, EMCC had won four meetings by an average of 43.2 points per game.
"Northwest is one of our biggest rivals, so this will be a fun game," EMCC sophomore running back Tyrell Price said. "We learned last year what can happen when you don't play your best. They really challenged us and made us work for the state championship. We go into this game with the same mind-set. We know we are going to have to work hard to win it."
The South Division champion will host the state championship game. However, the North champion could assume that role if division rivals meet for the title, much like a year ago.
For EMCC (6-0, 4-0 division), the big picture is just as bright as the small picture. In the latest National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national rankings, EMCC was No. 1 for a fourth straight week. The Lions actually grew their lead to 36 points over No. 2 Iowa Western College.
Northwest (4-1, 3-1) is one of five MACJC teams in this week's rankings. The Rangers have been battling uphill in the division race after a 27-24 loss to Itawamba Community College in Fulton. Northwest won the 2015 state and national championships, while EMCC won the state title and finished No. 2 nationally last season.
The EMCC poll growth comes thanks to a 49-3 win over then-No. 15 Holmes Community College. EMCC now has two wins against ranked opponents and has also beaten two other teams currently ranked. The Lions will get another shot to bolster that mark in the final week of the regular season against No. 7 Hinds Community College in Raymond.
With the top three teams in the South Division all ranked, as well as EMCC and Northwest, it appears EMCC could play two MACJC playoff games against ranked opponents as well.
"We are in a good position," Stephens said. "When the computers get involved, there is a not a lot you can say. You can't be consumed by the rankings but you do keep up and you know the numbers. We are in very good shape, as long as we find a way to continue to win games."
In the win over Holmes, Lindsey Scott, Jr. threw for 452 yards and five touchdowns. For this success, he was chosen as the MACJC Offensive Player of the Week on Tuesday.
EMCC also won the defensive award with Upshaw being chosen for a 10-tackle performance. He also had an interception return for touchdown.
"Everybody is excited because are almost at the end of the season," Scott said. "All of the goals we set at the beginning of the season, well they are in reach now. The biggest challenge is continuing to get better. You can't reduce your effort or focus now. That is when someone will get you."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. Moorhead changes MSU's routine on Sundays COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Sharp has emerged as fixture on offensive line for EMCC COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Calvert making big impact at Northwest Mississippi C.C. COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Mixon proves he's back with big effort in MSU's blowout COLLEGE SPORTS
5. McDonald, Moore play key roles in VCA's comeback victory HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS