East Mississippi Community College’s Adrian Miller celebrates a touchdown against Northeast Mississippi Community College. Photo by: JuCoWeekly.org Photo
October 31, 2018 8:48:02 PM
The Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) is set for their big party this weekend.
East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens is back in his role as host.
The MACJC football playoffs begin Saturday. For a second straight season, all four participants are ranked nationally by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).
No. 1 EMCC (9-0) will play host to No. 16 Copiah-Lincoln Community College (6-3) in Scooba, while No. 6 Jones College (8-1) will play host to No. 5 Northwest Mississippi Community College (8-1) in Ellisville.
The winners play the following week at the South Division champion (Jones) for the state championship.
Don't let the closeness of the national rankings fool you, EMCC is a heavy favorite in this four-team tournament.
"It's a loaded field this year," Stephens said. "It's one of those rare years -- like last year -- where any team can win the championship. You just have to focus on yourself at this time of year. You just set the goal of playing your best. For us, over the years, that is usually enough."
In Stephens' 11 seasons as head coach at EMCC, the Lions have put together a 12-3 playoff record. The team has now qualified for the postseason nine times, losing in the first round three times but winning both games needed for a state title on the other six occasions.
A year ago, the Lions won their sixth MACJC state championship the hard way. In a field where all four teams were ranked in the Top 12 nationally, EMCC beat No. 6 Jones and No. 4 Northwest -- both on the road -- to win the state title. The victory over Northwest was a 67-66, double-overtime thriller. That win avenged the lone regular-season defeat -- another loss at Northwest. That loss is what put the Lions on the road in the playoffs in the first place.
This season, there was no such mid-season letdown.
EMCC won all nine games it played in the regular season for a fourth time. The three previous times all ended with national championships.
The Lions won by an average margin of 33.3 points per game.
That being said they did have their close calls. A last-season field goal lifted EMCC past East Central Community College 24-21 in Decatur.
In the regular-season finale, EMCC played through a driving rain storm in a mud pit to put away Northeast Mississippi Community College, 26-7.
While the victory over Northeast was not impressive by any stretch of the imagination, Stephens was upbeat and very thankful to be 9-0.
"Going undefeated in our league is one of the hardest things to do in all of football," Stephens said. "You can analyze this or talk about that. In the end, you had a nine-week season and went 1-0 in every week. That's quite impressive."
When Cliff Collins returned as defensive coordinator before the 2017 season, he vowed to make the EMCC defense one of the best in the nation.
This year, he is well on his way to that promise. The Lions shut out two opponents, held five opponents to 13 or fewer points and also held four opponents under 100 total yards.
In a league where high-flying offense has always been the norm, Stephens has made a concerted effort to have a defensive staff in place that prides itself in leading every statistical category possible.
On offense, this has been atypical EMCC team. While the Lions did top 47 or more points six times, the offense has lacked the normal synergy. There have not been many two-minute scoring drives. Instead, it has been a more methodical offensive attack. The Lions have had a few more three-and-outs than their liking.
However, the defense consistently gets the offense the ball back and eventually the superior team will win. The bulk of the team's injuries have been on the offensive side of the ball, too.
Then there is also the Lions truckload of non-offensive touchdowns. EMCC had a streak of six straight games with at least one punt block snapped against Northeast.
That right there is mind boggling.
What it tells you is that Stephens is the mastermind behind all areas of the game. If there is one area lacking on a given day, there will be so many other areas ready to make up for that shortcoming.
EMCC is undefeated, No. 1 nationally and focused squarely on the mission at hand.
It doesn't matter how the team got to the party. What matters now is once again they should be the ones who controls when it ends.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.