PERKINSTON — East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens calls the death of one of his players the most difficult thing he has encountered in a long coaching career.
Playing for the memory of sophomore defensive lineman Tyone Clemons, No. 1 EMCC beat No. 2 Arizona Western College 31-28 Sunday afternoon to win the Mississippi Bowl at A.L. May Memorial Stadium.
Clemons was killed in an automobile accident two weeks ago in Jones County. The final weeks of bowl practice and Sunday’s final game were played in his memory.
“You can’t be prepared for that,” Stephens said. “It breaks your heart over and over. It has been a difficult time for this team. His spirit lives on through everybody here.”
On Monday, EMCC topped the final National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) rankings for the fourth time in program history. EMCC clinched the national championship Sunday, but that result was verified when the final rankings came out about 18 hours later.
EMCC finished with seven of nine first-place votes and held a 24-point lead over No. 2 Iowa Western College. Then-No. 3 Iowa Western beat then-No. 5 Northwest Mississippi C.C. 36-19 on Sunday in the Graphic Edge Bowl in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
EMCC and Northwest were the lone Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) members invited to bowl games this season.
“We have been working to get back to this point for three years,” Stephens said. “There has been so much adversity. The kids kept working, kept believing. When people counted us out, they kept working. Really special group. Happy to see them achieve their goals for us to get back to this point.”
Bowl organizers and EMCC players made sure Clemons, the former All-State lineman from West Jones High School was remembered Sunday. A Philadelphia native, Clemons was affectionately nicknamed “Philly” by his teammates.
“This was all about Philly,” EMCC sophomore defensive back Ty Williams said. “It hurts he was not here with us. However, we know he was watching. He was proud. He wanted this championship as much as the rest of us.”
Clemons’ family was recognized on the field before the game and also took part in the coin toss. A moment of silence was held and the Mighty Lion Band also had a tribute. After the game, Clemons’ mother hugged Stephens and thanked him for taking care of her son during his two seasons at the school.
The game ball was delivered by a sky diver, who landed just shy of midfield wearing a Clemons’ jersey.
After the game, players passed around Clemons’ No. 99 jersey and made sure it was part of multiple team photos. The team also broke its final huddle together with “No. 99” and then “Champions.”
Northwest Mississippi C.C. (No. 7), Jones County Junior College (No. 9), Itawamba C.C. (No. 10), and Hinds C.C. (No. 11) were the other MACJC teams in the final national rankings. Arizona Western finished third.
East Mississippi Community College sophomore linebacker Ty’Ree Evans, a former standout at Wayne County High School, took that opportunity to close his junior college career with a standout performance close to home.
Evans was named his team’s defensive MVP after recording 10 tackles, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry.
“We have been waiting two years for this,” Evans said. “Have to say I am pretty proud of the defense. It was a brotherhood. We cared so much for one another. It was great to end it this way with all of them.”
EMCC quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. was chosen his team’s offensive MVP. Scott was 15-for-28 for 170 yards, with touchdown passes to Dontario Drummond and Kirk Merritt.
Arizona Western sophomore quarterback Bryce Perkins was chosen his team’s offensive MVP. Perkins was 18-for-32 for 139 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore defensive end Tyrik Jones earned his team’s defensive MVP honors. Jones had seven tackles, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry.
Scott also was recognized as the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) Player of the Year. The award is given to the top player for the Mississippi participant in the Mississippi Bowl.
Scott completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 3,481 yards and 29 touchdowns.
While the future of the Mississippi Bowl remains in doubt, the future of the national championship game is set.
The NJCAA will play its national championship in Pittsboro, Kansas, starting in 2018. The Mississippi Bowl has been the destination spot for the MACJC champion in each of the last 10 seasons. The game has served as the national championship matchup four times.
EMCC moved to 5-0 in the Mississippi Bowl with its win. EMCC has beaten Arizona Western twice in this event. It won 27-24 in 2009.
EMCC won three National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national titles (2013, 2014, 2017) with a victory in the Mississippi Bowl. Northwest Mississippi C.C. won the Mississippi Bowl and national title in 2015.
Overall, the Mississippi representative is 9-1 in the game. Copiah-Lincoln C.C. dropped the 2012 Mississippi Bowl. Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. won the event in 2011, when it subbed for state champion EMCC, which won the El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Arizona.
EMCC has five Mississippi Bowl wins. Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. has three and Northwest Mississippi C.C. has one.
This and that
According to bowl officials, a record 40 coaches from senior colleges were present. That group included new Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead, who also spent part of the weekend at the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) state championships in Oxford.
New MSU running backs coach Charles Huff also was in attendance. Three members of the new Florida coaching staff were there, including defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
EMCC won its fourth national championship (2011, 2013, 2014, 2017). The title comes on the heels of its sixth state championship (2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017). … The Lions (11-1) finished with 11 or more wins for the sixth time in Stephens’ 10 seasons. … EMCC will finish in the top 10 nationally for the eighth time under Stephens. … EMCC is the first MACJC member with four national championships … Butler C.C. holds the all-time record with six national championships (last in 2008). … EMCC has now won all three series meetings with Arizona Western (27-24 in 2009 Mississippi Bowl and 55-47 in 2011 El Toro Bowl and Sunday) … Overall, Stephens is now 12-0 in state championship and bowl games combined
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.