The East Mississippi Community College football team learned its postseason destination more than two weeks ago.
This morning, players, coaches, and support staff members for No. 2 EMCC flew out of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport on the first leg of a 1,700-mile flight that will move it closer to the biggest game in school history.
EMCC (11-0) will face No. 1 Arizona Western College (11-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the El Toro Bowl at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Yuma, Ariz. The matchup is for the 2011 NJCAA national championship. EMCC has never won a national title in football, while Arizona Western’s lone title came in 1972.
“It’s time to get this party started,” EMCC sophomore wide receiver Lacoltan Bester said. “We are ready to represent and show the nation how we Mississippians play ball. I have been waiting for this game for a long time. We are ready to roll.”
The Lions accepted the bowl invitation Nov. 15. The nod to head west came after EMCC finished second in the final NJCAA regular-season Top 20. EMCC sewed up its ranking with a 42-17 victory against Mississippi Gulf C.C. 42-17 in the state championship game Nov. 12 in Scooba.
EMCC took time off for Thanksgiving before returning to the practice field this week for some spirited, light-hearted practices.
“The mind-set is real good,” EMCC fourth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. “You can’t really talk too much about what is going on. The players are well aware of the magnitude of this game. I think we are at our best when we are a little loose. These players have done a tremendous job of focusing on the task at hand when the ball is kicked off.”
Rarely challenged while rolling to a second state championship, EMCC opened postseason with a 55-24 victory against Hinds C.C. It has outscored the opposition 63-7 in the second half of its two postseason games.
“It was really good to see us respond in some pressure situations,” said EMCC freshman defensive back Justin Cox, of West Point. “We have not played a lot of close games. The state playoffs really helped us get ready for what is next. We haven’t played the perfect game yet, so hopefully that happens in this game.”
Presented by Time Warner Cable, the El Toro Bowl is back after a 39-year absence. The bowl game featured several high-profile contests in its initial run from 1968 through 1972. AWC defeated Fort Scott (Kansas) C.C. 36-8 in the 1972 El Toro Bowl, which also served as the national championship game that season.
Perhaps in the ultimate foreshadowing, Arizona Western College officials brought the bowl back to life about 18 months ago. Now, in the bowl’s reinstatement, the Matadors have earned the right to play host to the national championship game. This is the third time a national championship game has been played in Yuma.
“This team has had a lot of confidence all year,” EMCC sophomore defensive back Jeremy Cannon said. “Some people really didn’t know we were this good. However, the players always believed. Once we started winning, a lot of other people started taking notice.
“It is pretty awesome to have an opportunity to play a game of this magnitude. We are very excited about the trip, but it’s a business trip. We have one more game to win.”
Members of the 1972 AWC national championship team will be honored on a couple of occasions. The team will be recognized at the NCJAA Hall of Fame banquet. It also will be honored Saturday in pregame ceremonies.
EMCC will have an opportunity to have a couple of walk-throughs in the stadium. A parade also is scheduled, as well as a banquet and a couple of other team sight-seeing functions. In Yuma, the week has been full of activities under the heading of “El Toro Week.”
“To be able to play on this stage is quite exciting,” Stephens said. “This is what you work the entire season for. I told the players the other day they have the opportunity to go down as the best team to play at East Mississippi. That is quite an accomplishment.”
While the rosters will be different, the coaching staffs will know one another. EMCC defeated Arizona Western 27-24 in the 2009 Mississippi Bowl in Biloxi. In the final 2009 national rankings, EMCC placed fourth, while AWC finished sixth. The Matadors haven’t won a bowl game since winning the 1972 national title.
“We know what type of team Arizona Western is,” Cannon said. “They are very good and will present quite a challenge. However, they haven’t seen us play yet. When we play to our best on both sides of the ball, we feel like nobody can beat us. We look forward to this challenge.”
The bowl game will be shown live locally on My Mississippi. The EMCC radio broadcast may be heard on WFCA-FM (107.9). A video stream will also be available through the EMCC web site.
Through the efforts of the NJCAA, iHigh.com, and Arizona Western’s Matador Sports Network, a live video-streamed broadcast of the game also will be available online at www.njcaatv.ihigh.com
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.