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East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens took the honest approach when it came to building a program.
The two things Stephens wanted to do with the Lions was graduate the players placed in his care for two years and compete for a national championship.
Both goals have been reached.
EMCC accomplished one by winning the Holbrook Award for the highest graduation rate of 98 percent.
The other comes to realization Saturday when the Lions play Arizona Western College at the El Toro Bowl for the national championship. The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised by MY-MS.
"We've done everything we've said we're going to do and we've held firm to our commitment to getting them in, graduated and putting our program on a national college level," Stephens said. "You've got some junior colleges that talk a good game and they are going out throwing around scholarship offers left and right and those are the same guys sitting at the house and don't graduate the numbers of kids.
"It's about following through and making sure you do everything you say you are going to do and we have. We make sure they guys are at curfew, breakfast check and have gone to class. We make sure we enforce attendance policy."
Four players who have bought into the EMCC way are Starkville's D.J. Jordan, Jarrod Atterberry, Billy Shed and Jaquez Johnson.
Stephens said the former Jacket quartet are exactly what he's looking for in his program.
"All four of those guys are fantastic kids and we are very blessed to have them," Stephens said. "You are going to see them playing on Saturday somewhere."
Jordan has primarily been the backup at Mike linebacker behind EMCC's leading tackler Michael Pack. He is ninth for the EMCC defense with 39 total tackles with one forced fumble and three pass breakups.
"He has played lights out on defense," Stephens said.
Jordan said it has been a great experience playing for the Lions this season and being surrounded by teammates who lay everything on the line, love to work and love football.
Having success at the junior college level is something Jordan expected.
"Winning feels great," Jordan said. "From the start, I saw that we had a great team. I figured we'd win state, but had no idea we'd go to nationals."
Jordan is happy to be sharing the experience with former SHS teammates and appreciates the EMCC coaches for helping him improve as a player.
"I've gotten faster, bigger and stronger so overall I've improved a lot," Jordan said. "There are still some things I need to touch on, but other than that I've gotten a lot better.
"It's been great to go to college and knowing some guys from back home. You just feel comfortable around those guys. It's been great to have them around."
Shed also likes the memories established during his time with the Jackets, but said there are new ones being formed with the Lions.
"It's been a good ride," Shed said. "We're learning new things and getting better as a team as far as working on things since the beginning of the season. From high school and not winning the state, then coming here to win a state championship and having a chance to win national is a good feeling to have knowing that your hard work paid off."
Shed and Xavier Hogan have been working at backup running back behind 1,000-yard rusher Rodriguez Moore. Shed has also gotten a great deal of time on special teams.
He has rushed for 164 yards on 36 carries and has scored one touchdown.
"Billy Shed has filled in really well," Stephens said. "Early on, he's had a little bit of fumble-itis, but has gotten so much better and he's playing with way more confidence now. We're extremely excited about him and how well he's done."
Shed's older brother Patrick also played at EMCC and then moved on to be the featured running back at UAB.
Atterberry has moved into a starting role on the offensive line with the Lions and has enjoyed the experience.
"I'm playing with a great team and on a line full of sophomores and learning from them each and every day," Atterberry said. "It felt good to win my first state championship and to play in the national championship my first year in college, it's really good.
"When I started the season, I was a backup and when some guys went down (with injury), I stepped up. I've gotten better since I've been here."
Atterberry became the starting left guard when a season-ending leg injury to freshman center Tyler Stanley forced Warren Jones to move from left guard to the starting center position where he started last season.
Stephens said Atterberry has made a huge contribution at EMCC and it wasn't a surprise.
"He stepped up and did exactly what we knew he was going to be able to do when we recruited him," Stephens said. "He's done a fantastic job. He plays hard and he's a hard-nosed player. He comes to practice every day and he does work hard. He's a joy to be around as well as all of those guys (from Starkville)."
As far as Johnson, the former SHS quarterback is going through a medical redshirt season to allow his shoulder time to fully recover from surgery.
"We've held course to what we've said we were going to do," Stephens said, "We've allowed his shoulder to get healthy. He played in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game and he couldn't throw a pass. Now his shoulder is getting back healthy and we're extremely excited about him and his future with us."
As the Lions look to a national championship opportunity, Stephens is pleased the players are getting the job done on the field as well as the class room.
"We've still got a big step to take," Stephen said. "Our guys have a huge step over the next couple of weeks with exams coming up and we've got some guys trying to get out mid-term. When they get back, they will have only a week to get ready for finals."