Emporia State reached this point in the football season last year with same glistening 8-0 record and ran into a wall, losing its next two games by wide margins.
This season feels different.
The Hornets, ranked 10th in the Division II coaches’ poll, play host to No. 2 Northwest Missouri State at 1 p.m. Saturday. The winner will clinch a share of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association title and put itself in a stronger position for an NCAA playoff berth.
Emporia, 8-0, and the Bearcats, 9-0 and 8-0 in the conference, are MIAA’s lone undefeated teams.
“We understand what’s at stake,” Hornets coach Garin Higgins said. “But we can’t let the surroundings affect our play.”
Which is a lesson the team learned last season, when it ran into eventual league champion Missouri Western and Northwest Missouri to end the year. Higgins saw his team play out of character in the losses.
That’s why Higgins was especially happy with last week’s 35-30 triumph at Missouri Western. The Hornets came up with big plays on both sides for its first victory over a ranked opponent since 2003.
The outcome was sealed when Gary Fortune came up with an interception in the end zone with 11 seconds remaining, one of six turnovers gained by the Hornets, who lead Division II in turnover margin at plus-2.4.
Quarterback Brent Wilson, a sophomore from Ponca City, Okla., threw three touchdown passes, pushing his school-record total to 30 for the season. Wilson, a first-year starter, ranks third nationally in passing efficiency and touchdowns.
In the preseason, Emporia was picked to finish seventh in the MIAA by the coaches and media based on eight new starters on defense and a new quarterback. Still, the Hornets are back knocking on the door of a title.
“A lot of it has to do with depth,” said Higgins, in his seventh year coaching at his alma mater. “To win in this conference you have to have it at all positions.”
Like Northwest Missouri. The Bearcats have spent all season ranked in the top five of the polls, a familiar position for the program that’s gunning for its sixth MIAA championship in nine years. Washburn, 7-1 in the conference, and Pittsburg State, 6-1 in the MIAA, are also alive for a share of the championship.
“In this league, it’s tough to crack the top echelon,” said Higgins, whose team has won 24 of its past 28 games. “But these guys have worked hard, they’ve stuck together and they’re confident.”
Key NAIA game
Benedictine puts its perfect season on the line Saturday in one of its toughest chores this season. The Ravens, 9-0 and ranked fourth in NAIA, travel to No. 10 Missouri Valley.
The Vikings, 6-2, are the two-time defending Heart of America Conference champions and reached the NAIA semifinals last year.
A victory Saturday would clinch at least a share of Benedictine’s first conference championship since 2000 and the sixth in coach Larry Wilcox’s 34-year career.
Benedictine ranks sixth in the NAIA in total yards at 485.3 and seventh in scoring at 44 points per game. Running back Cameron Fore, a senior from Rolla, Mo., has rushed for 1,117 yards and 21 touchdowns and leads NAIA in scoring at 128 points.