SCOOBA – Holding down the No. 1 spot in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Preseason Football Rankings for the fifth time in the last seven years, the four-time national champion Lions of East Mississippi Community College are set to open the 2018 campaign by playing host to the preseason 13th-ranked Eagles of Hinds Community College Thursday evening on the Scooba campus. Kickoff for the inter-division gridiron matchup is set for 7 p.m. at EMCC's Sullivan-Windham Field.
The first member of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) to claim four national football championships (2011, '13, '14 & '17), as recognized by the NJCAA, EMCC enters this year's slate having won 74 of its last 79 games spanning back to the program's first of four national titles. The Lions' 74-5 composite record, including 11-1 marks each of the past two years, and 93.7 winning percentage over the last seven seasons includes separate winning streaks of 25, 20 and 17 consecutive games.
Beginning his second decade as head football coach at East Mississippi, Buddy Stephens will begin this season ranked seventh nationally among the NJCAA's winningest active football coaches. Two wins shy of the century mark with a 10-year head coaching record of 98-13, he presently ranks as the NJCAA's all-time leader in career winning percentage (.883) for coaches with at least 100 career games coached. Along with the four national championships, Stephens has also guided the Lions to six MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 titles and eight MACJC North Division regular-season crowns.
While returning four of their five starting offensive linemen from a year ago in LaQuinston Sharp (Columbus), Jakoby Jones (Starkville), Connor Reinike (Starkville) and Matt Toles (Lafayette HS), the EMCC Lions have brought in highly touted transfers Messiah deWeaver (Michigan State/Dayton, OH) and Deon McIntosh (Notre Dame/Pompano Beach, FL) at the quarterback and running back positions, respectively. The team's talent-laden receiving corps will be led by sophomore Dontario Drummond, who ranked fourth nationally with 10 touchdown receptions as a freshman. The Laurel product caught 37 passes for 609 yards (16.5 yds/rec) a year ago for EMCC, including 26 catches for 380 yards and six touchdowns over the season's last four games.
Defensively, the reigning national and state champions bring back veteran linemen Eriq Kitchen (South Panola HS), Everitt Cunningham (West Point) and Kane Taylor (Clearwater, FL), along with the return of sophomores Keilos Swinney (Yazoo County HS), JaQuez Akins (Starkville) and Joseph Anderson (Puckett HS) in the defensive secondary. EMCC's defensive prospects have been bolstered with the addition of notable transfers Lashawn Paulino-Bell (Michigan State/Fort Lauderdale, FL), Sci Martin Jr. (LSU/New Orleans, LA) and John Valesco (Shasta [CA] College/Homestead, FL), as well as the arrival of fellow out-of-state standouts Darel Middleton (Knoxville, TN) and Mackie McNeal (Alabaster, AL).
Guided by second-year head coach Larry Williams, the Hinds Eagles are ranked tied for 13th in this year's preseason NJCAA Top 20 after posting a 6-3 overall record a year ago in earning their first MACJC playoff berth since 2013. Williams, who spent the 2010 season as EMCC's defensive line coach, previously served as Hinds' defensive coordinator for seven years (2003-09) before returning to the Eagles' staff in 2013. He succeeded retired coaching great and EMCC alumnus Gene Murphy as Hinds' head football coach prior to the start of last season.
EMCC's Stephens owns a 4-1 career record against Hinds, including a 2-1 mark in games played in Scooba and a pair of wins in as many meetings in Raymond. During last year's regular-season finale (Oct. 28) pitting No. 5 EMCC and seventh-ranked Hinds at Joe Renfroe Stadium/ Gene Murphy Field, the two teams combined for 92 total points (58 after halftime) as the visiting Lions outlasted the Eagles by a final tally of 51-41. A year ago at Hinds, EMCC rushed for 311 yards and five touchdowns on 55 attempts as a team, including a career-high 154 rushing yards (3 TDs) on 18 carries by Chattanooga signee Tyrell Price.
Two years ago (Oct. 27, 2016), East Mississippi closed out the regular season with a 42-0 blanking of Hinds in Scooba. Prior to the 2016 campaign, EMCC knocked off the Eagles twice during the 2011 season en route to claiming the school's first national championship. After earning a tight 20-17 regular-season decision in Raymond during Week 2, the Lions posted a 55-24 home triumph over Hinds during the 2011 MACJC state semifinals played in Scooba. The year prior in Scooba, Hinds prevailed by a 50-42 final in a game contested at EMCC's previous Sullivan-Windham Field site located across campus.
With a seven-year collective home record of 38-1 since moving into their current Sullivan-Windham Field location prior to the 2011 football season, the EMCC Lions currently own a 28-game home winning streak over the past five seasons. Their lone home setback dating back to 2011 was a last-second 47-46 defeat at the hands of eventual MACJC state champion Copiah-Lincoln during the 2012 state semifinals played in Scooba.
Thursday's Top 15 MACJC season-opening showdown between EMCC and Hinds will be broadcast live by WFCA-FM (107.9), out of French Camp, with Jason Crowder and Charlie Winfield slated to provide the play-by-play and color commentary, respectively. EMCC's 2018 football radio broadcasts will also be carried live by SuperTalk Mississippi (WZKR-FM 103.3) out of Meridian as well as through EMCC's campus radio station, WGTC-FM (92.7), originating from the Golden Triangle campus in Mayhew.
In addition, EMCC's weekly live video-streamed football broadcasts will be available in HD at
www.EMCCAthletics.com/live. Alternate audio streams of the radio broadcasts are also available at www.wfca.fm. Fans are also encouraged to follow EMCC Athletics through the college's athletics website, www.EMCCAthletics.com, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (@EMCCAthletics) via the school's social media hub at www.EMCCAthletics.com/Social-Media-Hub.