May 30, 2024

EMCC edges Garden City in National Title

Photos by Adam Shrimplin

Listen to the complete game

Pittsburg, KS-Jeff Sims will go down as one of the best Junior College Coaches in the history of the sport. And while some may second guess his decision to go for a two-point conversion late in the National Championship Game, the man who holds one of the highest winning percentages in NJCAA history, never wavered.

“We had no intention of going for two,” Sims said. “But they weren’t covering our wideout. So I made the call. Nick Bohn did everything right. But credit their coaches for having them ready on that play.”

After Dedrick Mill’s fourth-down touchdown made it a one-point contest, the Broncbusters failed on that critical two pointer before a Jacob Anderson interception and a Lashawn Paulino-Bell fumble recovery sealed their fate, as No. 1 East Mississippi toppled second-ranked Garden City 10-9 at Carnie-Smith Stadium Thursday night, to claim their fifth national title in school history.

“We should have won the game,” Sims said. “But you can’t turn the ball over four times and beat a team like that.”

Even with those gaffs, the Broncbusters did something that no other team had ever done to Buddy Stephens’ squad, hold them without an offensive touchdown, limiting a team that was averaging 41.5 points per game, to just a first-half field goal. As a side note, it was the fewest points East Mississippi scored in a game since getting shutout by Northwest Mississippi 14-0 on Sept. 27, 2007.

“Josh Hager’s defense did an incredible job tonight,” Sims said. “Our offense just wasn’t very good. But we still had a chance to win the game.”

During Wednesday night’s press conference, Stephens pointed out that the reason Garden City is so good is that they don’t deviate from their plan. They try and do what they do better than you do. And while that may sound like coach speak, the formula worked perfectly for the first 10 games. Unfortunately against the nation’s fifth-best defense, they needed a second-element to their offense, one that never showed in the biggest game of the year.

The normally reliable David Moore, was under constant duress, finishing 2-for-10 for 16 yards with two costly interceptions.

“We just couldn’t throw the ball,” Sims explained. “We just didn’t have a very good first half, and we never found any rhythm.”

But despite their offensive inadequacies over the first 30 minutes, Ben Raybon‘s 25-yard field goal made it a 10-3 game with 4:06 to play in the third quarter. Meantime the defense held the NJCAA’s 12th-best offense to just one first down over the final 17 minutes, giving Garden City a chance to get back in the game.

“They beat us, and that’s a great program over there,” Sims said. “But we just held that explosive offense to three points. That was an incredible job by those players and Coach Hager.”

Garden City’s (10-1) first chance to tie ended with a three-and-out early in the fourth. But when they got the ball back, the Broncbusters were the beneficiary of a short punt that Andreus Price returned to the East Mississippi 33. What followed was an 11-play, 33-yard march, that was kept alive with two third-down conversions; one of those coming on a roughing-the-passer penalty on Everitt Cunningham, that gave Garden City a first down at the 6.

“There were so many reasons why we lost this game,” Sims said. “But even going for two, people have to understand, we scored our touchdown by a half an inch.”

It took Garden City four plays inside the 5 to punch it in, and on fourth-and-goal following a timeout, Mills used a cutback move to the left, and barely stretched the ball across the chalk for a touchdown, pulling the Broncbusters to within one with 7:49 remaining. But on the conversion attempt, East Mississippi corner JaQuez Akins did his homework.

When backup quarterback Nick Bohn scanned the Lions’ defensive front in what Sims calls their ‘swing’ formation, Dominick Watt was left uncovered on the right boundary. As the freshman looked over to the sideline for the call, that’s when Sims gave him the nod.

“I make that call,” Sims said. “And if the situation presented itself again, I would do the exact same thing.”

Once Bohn snapped his head back around and called for the ball, the play seemed setup for success. But when he pitched it back to Kahari Love, Akin peeled off his coverage of Watt and made a great open-field tackle a yard short of the goal line.

“Their corner made a great play,” Sims said. “That’s what great players do.”

Trailing 10-9, the Broncbusters had three chances to take the lead. The first was short-circuited when Akins tripped up Mills two yards shy of the first on fourth down at the East Mississippi 48. On their next possession, Moore forced a pass over the middle that Anderson intercepted, giving the Lions the ball back with 2:01 on the clock.

“I say we probably should have won, but we also turned the ball over four times,” Sims said. “There were so many things that we didn’t do.”

The Broncbusters were afforded a final opportunity in the closing seconds, but without any timeouts, Moore was called for intentional grounding before Lashawn Paulino-Bell stripped the Memphis-transfer and recovered it at the 10-yard line.

But that one-point loss stings even more knowing what transpired in the first half.

The Broncbusters totaled just 13 yards in the first quarter and 56 over the first 30 minutes. They failed to pick up a first down on their first six possessions before Mills finally moved the chains on a second-down carry with less than five minutes to go in the second period.

“We just couldn’t move the ball in the first half,” Sims said.

East Mississippi wasn’t much better. Their lone success on offense in the opening two periods came on their second drive, when they moved the ball 61 yards in 10 plays. That drive included a 26-yard hookup between Michigan-State transfer Messiah deWeaver and Dontario Drummond. One-time Notre Dame pledge Deon McIntosh added a 17-yard run, and the Lions were setup at the Garden City 19. But after Kenny White stuffed the sophomore back on first down, deWeaver threw back-to-back incompletions. Then, on fourth down, Josh Smith drilled a 36-yard field goal to give the top-ranked team a 3-0 edge with 9:59 to go in the first.

It was really the only life the Lions showed all night, as David Boykin’s offense finished with a season-low 211 yards. It was the second straight game that they were held to less than 300.

“Buddy Stephens has built East Mississippi into a power,” Sims said. “They are totally bought in.”

The Lions’ lone touchdown of the night came early in the second quarter. Pinned inside their own 10, Charles West, the NJCAA rushing champ, had the ball ripped out of his arms by Everitt Cunningham, who scooped it up and ran 10 yards for a score. Once Smith’s extra point split the uprights, East Mississippi (12-0) had a 10-0 advantage.

“That play was the difference in the game,” Sims said. “I mean, we did things tonight that we haven’t done all season long.”

It seemed as if Garden City was dodging bullets all night. The Lions had two other chances to extend the lead; the first of which ended when Smith missed a 34-yard field goal. Following a Broncbuster punt, Kahari Foy-Walton stripped deWeaver, and Demarcus Elliott recovered at the Garden City 18. But knowing his team would get the ball to begin the second half, Sims elected to have Moore take a knee.

West tallied his 12th career 100-yard rushing game, carrying the ball 23 times for 108 for Garden City, who lost for just the second time in their last 16 games. Mills added 67 yards on 28 carries, and Watt had one catch for 13 yards. Deric Rucker and Dillon Williams led the way with nine tackles apiece.

deWeaver finished 17-of-27 for 101 yards for East Mississippi, who won their 17th straight game. McIntosh totaled 67 yards on 18 carries, and Drummond caught seven balls for 50.

Notes: This was Sims’ final game as head coach, finishing with a 32-13 overall record…Sims is the fifth winningest coach in program history…Garden City held the Lions to just 27 yards of total offense in the second half…Garden City turned it over four times after not giving it away in three straight games, the first time that’s happened in more than 10 years…Garden City is now 1-3 all-time in National Championship Games