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Despite Championship Game Loss, Performance by Lackawanna Puts Northeast on Junior College Map

PITTSBURG, Kan. — The northeast and midwest were well represented at the NJCAA National Championship on Thursday night at Pittsburg State University as Lackawanna (Pa.) took on top-ranked Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast came into the game as the presumptive favorite and made good on that projection, winning the national title 24-13 over Lackawanna.

But the game provided an opportunity for a national audience — the game was televised on CBS Sports Network — to get an in-depth look at Lackawanna and the talent coming out of the northeast.

“It helps legitimize who we are,” said Lackawanna head coach Mark Duda. “They saw us against the best team in the land. We played tit-for-tat for the whole game. Now they’ll realize that we know how to play back east and up north. We’ve got some pretty good teams up there.”

While Lackawanna came out on the losing end of Thursday’s championship tilt, it held a 13-10 lead going into the fourth quarter while stifling one of the nation’s most prolific offenses.

Mississippi Gulf Coast averaged 440 yards of total offense and 33.1 points per game over the course of the season. Lackawanna limited the national champions to 224 yards on 83 plays while registering six sacks.

“You have to give Lackawanna a lot of credit,” said Mississippi Gulf Coast head coach Jack Wright. “They played extremely well on defense. I don’t think our offense looked like that in two years. It was frustrating all night.”

Mississippi Gulf Coast had averaged 238 yards passing per game behind quarterback Chance Lovertich. That mark was held to 118 yards on 10-of-25 passing against Lackawanna.

“From my perspective,” Wright said, “I thought they covered better than anybody we’ve played in a long time. They really smothered our passing concepts and our routes. In other games, Chance was under pressure and could still find an open guy. That was not the case tonight.”

The smothering secondary for Lackawanna was helmed by defensive back Ji’ayir Brown. A Trenton, N.J. native, Brown is committed to Penn State and is ranked as the No. 16 junior college prospect in the country by 247sports.

“This school shaped me as a person and as a man,” Brown said. “I’m thankful to the college for them giving me the opportunity to come here.”

Brown is one of two Penn State commits that made up Lackawanna’s roster this fall, with the other being wide receiver Norval Black. Hailing from Germantown, Md., Brown and Black developed a strong relationship during their time at Lackawanna.

“We’ve had a good relationship since we came to Lackawanna together,” Brown said. “That’s continued to grow since we came in. We have the bond. Now we both get to continue that relationship when we move on.”

Other area standouts for Lackawanna this season included running back Marques DeShields (Clementon, N.J.), who’s committed to Monmouth and Brandon Hickerson-Rooks (Harrisburg, Pa.), a linebacker garnering Division I interest.

Hickerson-Rooks tallied 10 tackles, including a team-high nine solo stops in the national title game to go along with two sacks. Five of his tackles were for loss.

“He’s been spotless since he’s been here on the field and in the classroom,” Duda said. “He’s a talented guy from Pennsylvania. I’m glad we had the opportunity to coach him.”

“We came into this game knowing we were the underdogs,” Hickerson-Rooks added. “People kept saying we weren’t that good. We came into this game with a chip on our shoulder and I feel like we showed out.”

Thursday provided a showcase and platform for Lackawanna to give the region more respect in the junior college ranks. Sure, Mississippi Gulf Coast won the title — its conference has now produced six of the last seven NJCAA national champions. But Lackawanna gave Gulf Coast everything it wanted and more.

Junior college football is on the rise in the region. Just recently, Sussex County Community College just announced that it would be starting its own football program.

For Lackawanna, Thursday was about proving to the country that it belonged.

“People need to venture to the north more,” Hickerson-Rooks said. “We’ve got some ballers out here. We’ve got dogs, so you’ve got to put some respect on us.”

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