November 14, 2017 10:32:02 AM
The East Mississippi Community College football team was coronated Monday afternoon when it earned the top spot in the final National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) poll of the regular season.
EMCC received three of nine first-place votes from the human voters, but it had enough computer points to hold the top spot by a large margin.
With that ranking, EMCC (10-1) will play No. 2 Arizona Western College (9-0) in the Mississippi Bowl for the NJCAA national championship at 2 p.m. Dec. 3 at Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.'s May Memorial Stadium in Perkinston.
"The kids are worthy of this honor," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "It has been a long climb to be back in this position. To say we are excited would be an understatement."
EMCC won the NJCAA national championships in 2011, 2013, and 2014. Last season, EMCC lost its first game but won 11 straight to finish No. 2 nationally.
This season, EMCC started the season No. 2 but took over the top spot after three-straight wins to start the season. The winning streak grew to six games before a 61-38 loss at Northwest Mississippi C.C. That loss dropped EMCC to seventh.
EMCC moved back to fifth (after a victory against Coahoma C.C.), third (after a victory against Hinds C.C.), and first again (after a victory against Jones County Junior College in the opening round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) playoffs).
EMCC held the top spot for a second-straight week thanks to a 67-66, double overtime victory against Northwest Mississippi C.C. in Senatobia. The win snapped Northwest Mississippi C.C.'s 16-game home winning streak.
"It was a championship-type effort," Stephens said. "We were a little humbled (in the regular-season loss). If given a chance to make up for it, we were going to get it right. I am proud of this group for staying together, working hard, and reaching this point."
The MACJC champion is in the host role for the Mississippi Bowl. The Lions have won their four previous Mississippi Bowl appearances, and are 5-0 in bowl games overall under Stephens.
The victory against Northwest Mississippi C.C. moved EMCC to 6-0 in state championship games.
Lindsey Scott Jr. threw for 471 yards and five touchdowns in the win. He also had 104 yards rushing. Tyrell Price had 50 yards rushing and three scores. Leading the NJCAA with 23 rushing touchdowns, Price will need 54 yards in the bowl game to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
"We have always taken great pride in the bigger the game, the better we play," Stephens said. "When it comes to championship games, we are able to go to another level. That's based on pride and tradition. There is an expectation."
Arizona Western won the Western States Football League. The Matadors had three games decided by a touchdown or less.
EMCC beat Arizona Western 27-24 in the 2009 Mississippi Bowl and 55-47 in the 2011 El Toro Bowl. The 2011 bowl win was also the national championship game.
The final NJCAA national rankings also included MACJC members Northwest Mississippi C.C. (No. 5), JCJC (No. 9), Itawamba C.C. (No. 11), and Hinds C.C. (No. 13).
The Lions were 5-1 against those squads, which helped them get back to No. 1.
The nine-game NJCAA bowl schedule will be released at noon today.
n In related news, EMCC had 11 players earn postseason honors Monday when the NJCAA All-Region 23 and MACJC All-State football teams were announced.
Leading the way for Stephens, the six-time Region 23 Coach of the Year, was the all-region quartet of wide receiver/kick returner Kirk Merritt, defensive back Duke Upshaw, defensive lineman Aarron Boatright, and kicker/punter Taylor Crabtree.
Joining them on the MACJC's All-State/North Division First Team were offensive lineman Walter Barnes and linebacker Ty'Ree Evans.
EMCC also placed quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr., running back Tyrell Price, wide receiver Mike Williams, offensive lineman Jakoby Jones, a former standout at Starkville High School, and defensive lineman Cole Baker on the MACJC's All-State/North Division Second Team.
Merritt collected All-Region and first-team All-State accolades as a wide receiver and kick returner. The Texas A&M/Oregon transfer leads EMCC with 50 catches. He is averaging 32.8 yards per kickoff return and 15.9 yards per punt return.
Also as a multi-position recipient, Crabtree garnered first-team All-State recognition as a kicker and punter. The Pascagoula native is fifth among the NJCAA's kickers with a state-best 90 points (9-for-12 on field goals, 63-for-65 on PATs).
Boatright, a transfer from Pima (Ariz.) C.C., ranks among the team leaders with five quarterback sacks for the year. Upshaw has a team-high three pass interceptions and eight pass breakups and 39 tackles. Evans has a club-best 91 tackles, including seven stops behind the line of scrimmage, in addition to two pass breakups, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Scott and Price rank high among the nation's statistical leaders at their positions. Scott, a transfer from LSU, ranks third nationally in passing yards (301.0 yards per game) and pass completion percentage (65.7 percent) and is tied for fourth with Region 23 Offensive Back MVP Dan Ellington, of ICC, with 27 passing touchdowns.
Price leads the NJCAA in scoring (144 pts) and rushing touchdowns (23) after notching his eighth multi-touchdown effort of the year Saturday.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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