No. 1 Northwest has come a long way in recent years.
The Rangers struggled the last two seasons. Hit by probation, they won just five games combined. This season, with sanctions set to come off, the Rangers rolled to a gaudy 10-1 overall record that included a MACJC Championship.
Sunday, Northwest will put its state championship to the test when it hosts No. 2 Rochester Community College and Technical College in the Mississippi Bowl, which will serve as the NJCAA National Championship.
Jack Wright attributes the team's rise in 2015 to a number of things. For starters, the Rangers added several key transfers, like former Troy quarterback Gardner Minshew and former Oklahoma cornerback and Harrison Central standout Tito Windham. NWCC also returned a number of starters from last year's four-win team, which gave him reason for optimism.
"In this league, because you have such a short two-year cycle with the freshmen you bring in, it's just really hard to know how far you're going to go," NWCC coach Jack Wright said.
As the summer progressed, Wright said he started to see a change in his team. Leaders began to emerge and the players as a whole seemed to undergo a transition.
"I did know for sure that we'd be a lot better. Just the bodies we had in summer school and in training camp, we were just a lot longer, leaner, faster, bigger and stronger guys. All across the board," he said. "That was obvious to anyone associated with the program. I knew we would be much further ahead as a football program, but what that meant as far as wins and losses and standings and championships, I'd have to admit it's been a big surprise."
The Rangers won their first seven games. After stumbling in a 49-16 loss to East Mississippi, NWCC regrouped to wallop Coahoma in the regular season finale and then edge both East Central and Gulf Coast in the playoffs to earn the spot inSunday's showdown.
Offensively, Minshew and running back Justin Crawford have been a dangerous duo. Minshew has completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 2,867 yards and 23 touchdowns, while Crawford has rushed for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 27 passes for 348 yards and six scores.
Minshew's season has been impressive, but what Rochester quarterback Nick Rooney has done this season puts the former Brandon High quarterback's production to shame.
In leading the Yellow Jackets to a perfect 11-0 season, the sophomore quarterback has thrown for 55 touchdowns, a NJCAA single-season record, and 4,111 yards. Although Rooney completed 69.2 percent of his passes this season, he also threw 10 interceptions with five coming in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference Championship on Nov. 8. The Jackets trailed 41-22 at half but rallied to win 45-41 thanks to five touchdowns from Rooney.
"I hate to say this as the opposing coach, but from a pure fan's perspective, he's really fun to watch," Wright said.
The 6-foot-2 Rooney's precision has stood out to Wright during film study.
"He doesn't hardly miss," Wright said. "He's got a couple of good receivers of course. Anytime you throw that many touchdown passes you're going to have some guys in space make plays for you. Being very accurate and being able to get those guys the ball on the run or in tight spaces has been his key."
No fly zone
Rooney's ability to deliver strikes will put added pressure on Windham to anchor the Rangers' secondary. In 10 games, Windham has recorded 30 tackles with one interception and leads NWCC with nine pass breakups and 10 passes defended.
"Tito has done a good job all year taking care of his guy if it's man coverage and being in the right position and reacting if he's in zone," Wright said. "He came in ahead of most of the freshmen because of his experience at Oklahoma, his understanding of how the offense is trying to attack corners.
"Against a good quarterback like that you have to mix it up, so he's going to have to do everything really well just like he's done all year."
There could be some added pressure on the Rangers to claim their first national title since 1992 as Magnolia State representatives are 6-1 in the game. Host Gulf Coast and East Mississippi are both 3-0. Copiah-Lincoln holds the only blemish, a 31-29 loss to Garden City.
Kickoff at Biloxi High is set for 2 p.m. The game will be streamed on MGCCCBulldogs.com/BulldogLIVE and NJCAATV.com.