Veteran EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens makes a point to his team during the Lions win over Northwest for the MACJC State Championship.
Veteran EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens makes a point to his team during the Lions win over Northwest for the MACJC State Championship.
By Laurence Hilliard

Kemper County Messenger

Buddy Stephens has an outstanding record in his 10 years as head football coach at East Mississippi Community College, going 97-13 for an .882 winning percentage, best ever in the junior college ranks among coaches with at least 100 games.

But in bowl games, he's even better. The Lions are 5-0 in bowl games under Stephens. They will attempt to make it 6-0 when top-ranked East Mississippi plays second-ranked Arizona Western for the NJCAA National Championship Sunday, Dec. 3 in the Mississippi Bowl at Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston.

The secret to the Lions success in bowl games? “Just not over preparing,” Stephens said. “When you play a bowl game, it's not hard to keep them (players) focused, but you have to keep them focused on the right things.”

He said the only difference in preparation for a bowl game compared to the regular season is that there is longer to prepare. After playing games weekly during the season, the Lions have three weeks between their 67-66 win over Northwest in the state championship game and the Mississippi Bowl. “Other than that, we prepare the same way. We're not going to have any longer practices. We're not going to do anything that is out of the ordinary.”

Two of the Lions bowl game victories came against Arizona Western, 27-24 in the 2009 Mississippi Bowl and 55-47 in the 2011 El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Arizona for the National Championship.

“They're very, very talented,” Stephens said of this year's Arizona Western team. “They're a very, very fast team and big as all get out. They look like an SEC team or a Pac 12 team with all those offensive linemen and defensive linemen. That's a good looking bunch of players.”

Stephens said Arizona Western has an advantage because the Arizona Junior College Athletic Association does not place a limit on the number of out of state players, allowing greater latitude in recruiting. “They have 66 players on their roster and 59 are from out of state.”  There are players from 22 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

By contrast, Mississippi schools are only allowed eight out-of-state players.

The Mats (that's Arizona Western's nickname) are 9-0 and have outscored their opponents 369-153. They scored 64 and 66 in their lost two games to qualify for the national championship game.

Arizona Western averages 475 yards per game led by quarterback Bryce Perkins, who has completed 96 of 148 passes for 1,172 yards, and running back Greg Bell, who has carried 176 times for 1,094 yards.

East Mississippi (10-1) is averaging 517 yards per game, led by quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr., who has thrown for 3,311 yards and run for 689.

The Lions other bowl wins, all in the Mississippi Bowl, were 52-32 over Georgia Military for the National championship in 2013, 34-17 over Iowa Western for the National Championship in 2014, and 27-17 over Kilgore (Texas) last year.

East Mississippi's ongoing success is even more remarkable because Stephens has players for only two years, and sometimes only one year. Recruiting is the key, he said.

“Nowadays the kids look at facilities, they look at whether you are a winning program and if the kids graduated. If we don't stay on top of all of those, we won't be winning year in and year out.”