Unbeaten Emporia State prepares for its toughest test

11/08/2013 10:00 AM

11/07/2013 7:49 PM

From where Emporia State coach Garin Higgins is sitting, 8-0 is pretty sweet.

It’s a fleeting feeling, sure, with No. 2 Northwest Missouri coming to Welch Stadium on Saturday, but that’s beside the point.

“I’ve been coaching a long time and something I learned from my dad, Gary, who was a coach, and my college coach was to enjoy the process,” said Higgins, who played quarterback at Emporia State from 1987-90. “Enjoy that time with your players, enjoy that time with the fans and people who love the team.

“It’s been awhile since our program has gotten to this point, and a lot of those rough times came with me sitting in this chair.”

Higgins’ rough times might have sunk most coaches – he had a losing record in his first five seasons, including a 2-9 record in his third — but broke through last year with a 10-2 record and a victory over Texas A&M-Kingsville in the Kanza Bowl.

It was Emporia State’s best season since 1989, when they went 11-2 and lost in the NAIA championship game.

“Something else my dad and (former Emporia State) coach Larry Kramer taught me was how to deal with adversity,” Higgins said. “You check your hope card and you fight through it.”

The winner of Saturday’s game takes over sole possession of first place in the MIAA. The Hornets posted their first win over a ranked opponent since 2003 on Saturday with a 35-30 win over No. 12 Missouri Western at St. Joseph, Mo.

Emporia State moved up to No. 10 in the latest NCAA Division II rankings.

“The win over (Missouri Western) was big for us, but I feel like that confidence has already been there, all season,” said senior linebacker Jordan Sanders, who is second on the team with 54 tackles. “And probably, by the time we left the locker room, we were already thinking about Northwest Missouri.”

The Bearcats have the MIAA’s top scoring and total defense at 14.9 points and 287.6 yards. Emporia State has the top scoring and total offense at 47.2 points and 555.2 yards.

Sophomore quarterback Brent Wilson has been the breakout star for Emporia State this year. The 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore from Ponca City, Okla., leads the MIAA in passing with 2,492 yards, 30 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s also rushed for 457 yards and three more touchdowns.

Wilson backed up All-MIAA quarterback Tyler Eckenrode last season as Eckenrode set the school’s single-season passing record with 3,742 passing yards.

“The season, for me, has been a humbling experience,” Wilson said. “It’s been a great team success. And now we have the opportunity to take on the No. 2 team in the country, at home, in front of our fans.”

Northwest Missouri has played in the NCAA Division II championship game seven times in the past 20 years, winning the title in 1998, 1999 and 2009.

“To me, they’re the measuring stick for the MIAA,” Higgins said. “I’ve got all the respect in the world for how they run their program and our goal, of course, is to beat them. They’re used to being in these moments, these big games, and we’re relatively new to it. We’ve been talking about being who we are, don’t be different and don’t do things out of character.”

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