Friday, September 12, 2014

ECCC Warriors Hang Tough in Loss to Nationally Ranked Gulf Coast

DECATUR - For almost three quarters, East Central Community College’s football squad provided a tougher opponent than most expected against nationally ranked Mississippi Gulf Community College Thursday night at Bailey Stadium.

The Warriors trailed the No. 4 Bulldogs by only a 14-7 margin with a few minutes remaining in third stanza, but the visitors capitalized on EC miscues in fourth-quarter action and pulled away for a 35-7 victory in the MACJC South Division opener for both squads.

It was also an historic night for East Central, as the contest was played for the first time on the recently installed synthetic turf. Although attendance numbers are not available, a possibly record crowd was on hand to watch the division battle on a warm and humid night.

Warrior head coach Ken Karcher said he was pleased with his squad’s effort, especially against such a formidable foe as the Bulldogs, who began season action with convincing wins over Northeast (41-8) and Northwest (63-7).

“I am extremely proud of my team,” said Karcher, now is his second year at EC. “We had every opportunity to win the football game. But in the second half, we had some mistakes that hurt us. But I thought we played them toe-to-toe and physical, and I think that people are starting to recognize that East Central football is changing.”

The Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0) and Warriors (1-2, 0-1) committed turnovers on their opening possessions, and the visitors missed a scoring opportunity late in the first stanza when Tristan Reynolds’ 27-yard field goal attempt was off target.

Gulf Coast managed to reach pay dirt early in the second quarter when highly touted quarterback Jason Smith of Mobile completed a 21-yard TD pass to wide receiver Tevaris McCormick of Biloxi, capping a 12-play, 55-yard drive. Reynolds, a Petal High School product, made the first of his five PATs on the night.

The Bulldogs extended their lead to 14-0 on their next possession, as Smith tossed his second TD pass, this time a 10-yard strike to wide receiver Tyrone Williams of Diamondhead. The scoring drive took just five plays and covered 60 yards.

East Central responded with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring march, culminating on quarterback Ethan Hamilton’s 35-yard TD pass to wide receiver Xavier Willis with 1:21 left before halftime.

Hamilton, a 6-2, 242-pound product of Noxapater High School, scrambled to escape defensive pressure from the Bulldogs and managed to find his target cutting across the field for the score. Willis is a 5-5, 165-pound product of Newton County High School.

Karcher had high praise for the sophomore signal caller, especially his efforts during first-half action.

“I thought Ethan really managed the game well in the first half,” Karcher said. “They (Gulf Coast) came out and started pressuring us in the second half, and I thought that’s what got to us.”

The Bulldogs threatened to add to their 14-7 lead just before halftime, but a four-yard sack of Smith by Warrior defensive lineman Dexter Charles and an intentional grounding penalty nipped the threat.

Gulf Coast did find the end zone again midway in the third stanza, as Smith and Williams hooked up again, this time on a 10-yard scoring pass play, capping a six-play, 51-yard march, which extended the Bulldog lead at 21-7.

The Warrior defense would later nix a possible Bulldog score, by forcing another Gulf Coast fumble and taking possession deep in EC territory.

“I’ve been proud of our defense all year,” said Karcher. “Our kids have played hard, and the coaches have had them in good position to make plays. The defense has been the guys who have established the physical toughness to our team, and I look for them to continue to improve as we move through the season.”

But any hopes of a comeback were dashed early in the final stanza, when Hamilton’s pass attempt was picked off by Bulldog defensive back Tony Bridges who returned the pigskin 24 yards to pay dirt and stretched the Bulldog lead to 28-7. Bridges, an Auburn commit, is a product of Hattiesburg High School.

Gulf Coast later capitalized on Hamilton’s second interception deep in Warrior territory, as Smith found the end zone on an eight-yard scamper with 6:06 remaining for the game’s final points.

“The two turnovers gave them a touchdown and great field position on the other,” Karcher said. “But I thought Ethan played well, and he fought hard, but he had some key mistakes in the second half….those are things we’ve got to eliminate.”

The Warriors will take a break from division action by hosting Holmes Community College Thursday, Sept. 18. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Bailey Stadium.

The Bulldogs are also 1-2 on the young season following their 19-3 loss to Itawamba Community College Thursday night. Holmes began the season by beating Hinds Community College 28-21, followed by a 28-14 setback to Pearl River Community College.

The ECCC/Holmes matchup is designated as “Black-Out Bailey Night” and “Be Our Guest Night.”

Warrior fans are encouraged to wear black and purchase “Black-Out Bailey” T-shirts from Theta Xi Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, event sponsor.

All area high school students will be admitted to the game at no charge as part of the annual event.