November 8, 2017 9:50:46 AM
A strange thing happened on the way to this weekend's Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) state championship game: the East Mississippi Community College football team became the nation's top-ranked team.
At 2 p.m. Saturday at Bobby Franklin Field in Senatobia, No. 1 EMCC (9-1) will face No. 4 Northwest Mississippi C.C. (8-1) in a rematch of last season's state championship game.
"This all about assures us the winner will be playing for the (National Junior College Athletic Association) (NJCAA) national championship," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "If you win our league's championship, you have earned that right."
EMCC began the season ranked No. 2 nationally. The Lions won their first three games to move to No. 1. The winning streak grew to six games before Northwest Mississippi C.C. beat EMCC 61-38 on Oct. 12, also in Senatobia.
"The game really humbled us," EMCC quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. said. "We controlled our own destiny and really didn't respond. They punched us first and we didn't have an answer. That is not what this team is normally about."
EMCC has played the waiting game since the loss. The patience was rewarded. The Lions moved from seventh to fifth to third back to No. 1 in four polls.
In this week's rankings, EMCC bypassed No. 2 Arizona Western College and No. 3 Iowa Western C.C., despite wins by both of those squads. Arizona Western will play No. 19 Scottsdale, while Iowa Western C.C. will play College of DuPage, which is also receiving votes in this week's poll, this weekend in their final regular-season games.
EMCC holds close to a two-point lead over Arizona Western in the rankings and an 18-point lead over Northwest Mississippi C.C. Ironically, EMCC received zero of the nine first-place votes by the human voters on the poll.
The computer formula used for the rankings factors in strength of schedule.
EMCC received a huge boost from a 24-20 victory against then-No. 6 Jones County Junior College last weekend in Ellisville in the MACJC semifinals. Northwest Mississippi C.C. beat then-No. 12 Hinds C.C. 27-13 at home in the other semifinal. That win kept the Rangers at No. 4.
"We are looking forward to playing Northwest again," EMCC wide receiver Kirk Merritt said. "If they beat us again, they beat us again. However, we are going to play a lot better, so they will have to be really great to beat us again. I think the loss really sharpened our mental focus. We have been a changed team after that loss.
"Sometimes, you need a rest. Fortunately, (the rankings) have worked itself out."
A year ago, EMCC began the season ranked No. 1. After losing the season opener at JCJC, EMCC responded with 11-straight wins. That still wasn't enough to get the squad higher than No. 3.
A win in the Mississippi Bowl helped EMCC finish No. 2.
This year, a strong end of the season schedule, which included a victory against then-No. 7 Hinds C.C. in the regular-season finale and the victory against JCJC in the playoffs gave the Lions the boost they needed.
"Fortunate, that is the word for it," Stephens said. "There have been times the rankings have not worked out for us. This time, it has. We are back in a position where we control our fate. We won't need any additional help."
The MACJC champion earns an automatic invitation to the Mississippi Bowl on Dec. 3 in Perkinston. That game will be for the national championship if EMCC or Northwest Mississippi C.C. is No. 1 in next week's final ranking of the season.
Under Stephens, EMCC is 5-0 in state championship games and 5-0 in Mississippi Bowls. A year ago, EMCC beat Northwest Mississippi C.C. 38-30 in Scooba for the state championship.
"Everybody is excited, knowing its one game for everything," said EMCC running back Tyrell Price, who leads the NJCAA with 20 rushing touchdowns. "We have worked hard to reach this point. Northwest certainly has attention. We know what we have to do."
JCJC is No. 10, followed by Itawamba C.C. at No. 14, Hinds C.C. at No. 15, and Holmes C.C. at No. 20.
A win Saturday would give EMCC its sixth 10-win season under Stephens. More importantly, it would give the Lions a chance to add to national titles won in 2011, 2013, and 2014. Northwest Mississippi C.C. last won the national title in 2015.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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