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Cunningham fueled Lions' defense in title game

 

East Mississippi Community College defensive lineman Everitt Cunningham looks into the backfield Thursday night prior to the snap. The sophomore from West Point earned Most  Valuable Player honors in No. 1 EMCC’s 10-9 victory against Garden City C.C. in the national title game in Pittsburg, Kansas.

East Mississippi Community College defensive lineman Everitt Cunningham looks into the backfield Thursday night prior to the snap. The sophomore from West Point earned Most Valuable Player honors in No. 1 EMCC’s 10-9 victory against Garden City C.C. in the national title game in Pittsburg, Kansas. Photo by: Derek Livingston/Special to The Dispatch

 

Scott Walters

 

 

PITTSBURG, Kansas -- Two years ago on National Signing Day, West Point High School football coach Chris Chambless called Everitt Cunningham the best kept secret as he watched him finalize his plans to attend East Mississippi Community College. 

 

This season, Cunningham backed his former coach's words with a standout season to help No. 1 EMCC win the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship. Cunningham punctuated a standout sophomore season by earning Most Valuable Player honors in No. 1 EMCC's 10-9 victory against No. 2 Garden City C.C. (Kansas) in the title game Thursday night at Carnie Smith Stadium on the campus of Pittsburg State. 

 

Cunningham recovered both of the fumbles he forced and returned one for a touchdown that helped the Lions complete a 12-0 season and a wire-to-wire run as the nation's top team. 

 

"He has good size and speed and has done a great job of growing into his body," Chambless said. "He has always had a high passion for the game. His motor is always running. He has that nice-guy-off-the-field/tough-guy-on-the-field persona. Always working, learning, getting stronger." 

 

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Cunningham began the season in a fight for a starting position. By the time EMCC's fifth national championship run ended, he was one of the premier players on the nation's best defense. 

 

EMCC finished the season allowing 11.2 points per game. Garden City C.C. became the seventh opponent to be held to 10 or fewer points in a game. 

 

"We are all blessed to be here and to be in this position," Cunningham said. "It's still football, and we are all working hard to play on the next level. This year's defense could really play. We felt like it was our job to change the momentum in a game." 

 

Early in the second quarter, Garden City C.C. (10-1) faced third-and-4 from its 9-yard line. Garden City's Charles West picked up 2 yards before being hit hard at the first-down marker. Cunningham made the strip, recovered the ball in the air, and hustled 11 yards for the touchdown. 

 

"That's what we have been doing all season," EMCC sophomore defensive back JaQuez Akins. "It doesn't matter who is going to make the play, we just know somebody is. Our front four may be the best to every play JuCo ball. They are real. You could tell our offense got frustrated at times just going against them every day." 

 

Garden City C.C. primarily runs the ball, so the pass rush that made EMCC so lethal wasn't as critical. However, the team was credited with four pass breakups on the Broncbusters' 10 attempts. 

 

"It was a different game because just about everybody in our league throws the ball," Cunningham said. "We just had to stay disciplined and stay in our gaps on defense. Those were going to be the big keys to success." 

 

Eriq Kitchen led EMCC with 13 tackles, while Untareo Johnson added 11 and Cunningham had eight. EMCC also had two interceptions for a 4-1 advantage in the turnover department. 

 

"All year, (defensive coordinator) coach (Cliff) Collins has been talking about turnovers," Cunningham said. "He talks turnovers, tackles for loss. Last year, we won the championship but gave up too many big plays. 

 

"This year, we wanted to do a better job of helping the offense out." 

 

Perhaps the biggest play came on a two-point conversion when Johnson stopped Kahari Love, who came out of the swinging gate, at the 1. That play happened with 7 minutes, 49 seconds left in regulation. It was also a saving moment for Cunningham, who was penalized for roughing the passer after an incomplete pass on third-and-11 from the EMCC 12. The penalty gave the Broncbusters a first and goal from the 6 that they capitalized on to set up the conversion. 

 

"Fortunately, we made the stop there," Cunningham said. "It happened so fast, but we had to regroup because we knew they would be going for two there." 

 

Cunningham also had his moment of redemption later on a sack of David Moore and a fumble recovery in the closing seconds. 

 

"The defensive effort was relentless," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "Incredible for four quarters. One of the best efforts I have ever been around." 

 

Cunningham will take time to weigh his senior college options. He is a three-star prospect ranked No. 24 in the state and No. 121 nationally. He also has a resume that includes one Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) state championship and two junior college national titles. 

 

Chambless knows those recruiting numbers can be deceiving. 

 

"The program that gets him next will be blessed," Chambless said. "Nobody is going to work harder. Nobody is going to play harder. He has a chance to be special." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott 

 

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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