By Tony Tsoukalas / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
It has been two seasons, but No.1 East Mississippi Community College won’t need an introduction from visiting No. 5 Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College today — the two are already well acquainted.
Since EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens took over in Scooba, the two teams have faced off six times with the Lions coming away victorious four of those times including state championships in 2009 and 2011.
The stakes will once again be high as the two meet in the opening round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges state playoffs. The Lions will once again be tested as the Bulldogs mark their first ranked opponent this season.
“It’s just a typical Gulf Coast team,” Stephens said. “They run the ball well. They can beat you running or throwing. Defensively, they are sound. They have an exceptional group of defensive backs and linebackers. They are going to be the best team we played so far.”
MGCCC (8-1, 6-1) entered the season ranked No. 1 by the National Junior College Athletic Association but fell to No. 4 Jones County, 52-42, in Week 4. The Bulldogs have since gone unbeaten and are riding a five-game winning streak into Scooba.
EMCC (9-0, 7-0) comes into the game fresh off locking up the MACJC North Division with a 59-13 win over Itawamba Community College last week. The Lions are riding a nine-game winning streak of their own, dating back to the first round of the playoffs last year when they fell to Copiah-Lincoln, 47-46, in the game’s closing seconds.
“This is a game that has been anticipated for a while,” Stephens said. “This was a game that was anticipated last year, but we didn’t do what we needed to in order to make it happen. We just have to do our best to make sure we execute our best and just play.”
Here are five things to watch for in today’s 2 p.m. kickoff.
Getting defensive: EMCC ranks No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, giving up only 3.7 points a game this season. MGCCC’s defense has been equally stout holding opponents to just 17.7 points per game.
Both defenses have multiple playmakers, especially in the secondary where EMCC’s Allen Sentimore ranks third in the nation with six interceptions and MGCCC’s Justin Evans is tied for fifth with five. The Bulldogs’ defense should provide the EMCC offense with its first test this season as the Lions have blown past opponents averaging a nation’s best 65.4 points per game.
“For every defense, ours and theirs, you have to find the areas that they are weak in and exploit those,” Stephens said. “For them, they have very few weaknesses. They are an exceptional team.”
Stacked South: There has been no question about what division is the MACJC’s strongest this season. While No. 2 EMCC is the only ranked team in the North Division, the South Division boasts No. 3 Jones County, No. 5 Gulf Coast, No. 9 Copiah Lincoln and No. 16 Hinds Community College. While the Lions have not been tested quite as hard as the Bulldogs this season, Stephens said he expects his team to be able to play against anyone in the MACJC.
“The South is tough, and it’s always been tough,” Stephens said. “I think there are two teams that didn’t even make the playoffs that are good teams in Co-Lin and Hinds. I think Hinds was playing as well as anybody in the South at the end of the year. It’s just a tough league and a tough division.”
Out of their minds: While an early exit in last year’s playoffs still lingers in the heads of Lions fans, Stephens said his team is not concerned with last year in the least.
“We can’t worry about what happened last year,” Stephens said. “Last year is over and done with, and that’s the way we need to play. Worrying about last year cost us last year.”
National implications: While EMCC’s path to a national title seems clear, MGCCC could also play it’s way into contention if the Bulldogs win out. Sitting at No. 5 in the rankings, MGCCC can jump both EMCC and JCJC if it locks up a MACJC title. The two wins over top-5 teams might also be enough to propel the Bulldogs past No. 3 Iowa Western Community College and land them a spot in the championship.
“Nobody is going to hold anything back,” Stephens said. “If you have a trick play, you’ll run it. If you have players that have been hurt, they are going to play. At this time of the year, you just bust your butt to make sure you win the game.”
On the other side: No. 3 Jones County will host Itawamba today at 3 p.m. in the MACJC’s other semifinal game. EMCC has already locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and would host either team if they beat MGCCC.