Talented squad propels EMCC to title, Stephens to Coach of the Year

 (Top) Buddy Stephens recently won his second Spalding NJCAA Coach of the Year award
Staff Writer

East Mississippi Community College finished the season 11-1 for the second straight year.

The Lions avenged their only loss of the season with a thrilling 67-66 double-overtime win over Northwest Mississippi Community College and won the NJCAA national championship 31-28 against Arizona Western College in the Mississippi Bowl.

“We had a special team this year, I really do think we did,” Stephens said. “We didn’t have a team with four- and five-star guys, but it was a team of really good football players that really did a good job of playing well together. The first ball game, we could have shut it down when we went down 14, but our guys believe in our program and we have a lot of special kids that decide to come here.”

Stephens said his team’s biggest attribute was its attitude and determination to win.

“There’s a lot of times we beat people before we even get off the bus,” Stephens said. “The kids that we play against know that we’re East Mississippi and there’s no other way I can put it. They know in the back of their minds that we’re coming. We have a particular swag when it comes to our kids and our football program.”

EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens was honored for his team’s success by being named Spalding NJCAA Football Coach of the Year. The 10th-year head coach won his fourth NJCAA national championship (2011, 2013, 2014, and 2017), along with his sixth MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 championship (2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017).

This is the second time Stephens has won the award, with the previous time coming in 2014. Stephens is also a two-time recipient of the Junior College National Coach of the Year, as awarded by American Football Monthly magazine.

“I’ve got a fantastic staff that I work alongside,” Stephens said. “That’s a staff award and one person never wins that, on any level. That should be called the ‘Coaching Staff of the Year’ award.”

Stephens improved his record to 98-13 at East Mississippi, surpassing legendary Hall of Fame head coach Bob “Bull” Sullivan as the school’s career win leader this season. He also ranks as the NJCAA’s all-time leader in career winning percentage (.883) for coaches who have coached 100 games or more.

The Lions were led by two All-Americans, in defensive back Duke Upshaw and kicker Taylor Crabtree.

Upshaw is a two-year starter at cornerback for the EMCC and led the Lions with three interceptions in each of his two seasons. In 2017, Upshaw recorded 39 tackles and eight pass breakups. Two of Upshaw’s interceptions came during EMCC’s 72-7 homecoming route of Coahoma, including a 30-yard pick six.

“Duke has come a tremendously long way and his confidence has built so much,” Stephens said. “He’s such a well grounded young man and knows what kind of person he wants to be. He’s a model for the rest of our team. One of these days you’re going to see Duke Upshaw and somebody is going to be voting for him, for some office, somewhere.”

Crabtree handled the Lions kicking and punting duties during the 2016 season, but chose to focus solely on placekicking during the 2017 campaign, earning himself All-America honors. The Vancleave, Mississippi native connected on 77 percent of his field goal attempts (10-of-13), while converting on 67-of-69 extra-point attempts. He was the nation’s third-leading scorer among NJCAA kickers this season, with 97 points scored.

“Taylor has been consistent his entire career, since he has been here,” Stephens said. “He is a phenomenally fantastic kid to be around. He has been a model of consistency and his leg strength has improved over the years. We were so excited to have him as a part of our program.”

Upshaw signed with Central Arkansas on Friday, while Crabtree is headed to Boca Raton, Florida to play for Lane Kiffin and the Florida Atlantic Owls.

Stephens said West Point’s own Everitt Cunningham is a player to watch in 2018 for EMCC. The freshman was a key player on the Green Wave’s 2016 state championship team and recorded 29 tackles, eight tackles for loss, including three sacks, and one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

“He’ll be one of the most highly recruited defensive linemen in the country,” Stephens said of Cunningham. “He is learning a lot more about the speed of the game and the intensity you have to have every single practice. He brings that (intensity) a lot and watching him grow and learn has been phenomenal. He’s come a long way over the last year.”