POPLARVILLE, Miss. -- It was a tale of two halves for the No. 20 ranked East Central football Warriors Thursday night in an MACJC South Division matchup at Pearl River.
Fortunately for the Warriors, a strong first half helped overcome a sluggish finish as East Central claimed a 24-21 win over the Wildcats at Dobie Holden Stadium in Poplarville.
East Central scored all of its points in the first half and then held on for the win with linebacker Kendrick Abney sealing the Warrior win with an interception, his second of the second half, with 1:22 to play to stop the final Pearl River drive.
With the win, East Central improved to 3-1 on the season and 2-0 in the MACJC South Division. Pearl River fell to 0-4 and 0-2. It was the Warriors third road game this season.
On Tuesday, East Central earned its first spot in the NJCAA Top 20 since 2015.
Sophomore quarterback Mario Asagunla threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter and the East Central defense repeatedly found themselves in the Pearl River backfield during the first 30 minutes of play. The Warriors forced six Wildcat punts and two turnovers in the first half alone, and were credited with five sacks.
Wide receiver Kevontaye Caston out of Trinity Episcopal in Natchez caught a screen pass from Asagunla and carried it 15 yards to open the scoring. Asagunla then hit freshman Jaylen Zachery from Dayton, Ohio, with a 19-yard screen pass for a score, before Caston hauled in another pass from 20 yards out for his second touchdown, all in the first quarter. Sam Cox of Starkville Academy hit a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter to complete the 24 first half points for the Warriors.
East Central cornerback Daniel Little out of Terry intercepted a Pearl River pass and later recovered a fumble as the Warrior defense stymied the Wildcat offense in the first half.
Pearl River tacked on a 40-yard field goal with less than a minute to play before intermission.
The Warriors didn’t come out of the locker room to start the second half with the same momentum as they did to start the game. A snap over the punter’s head resulted in a safety, and a 22-yard field goal following the free kick to Pearl River quickly closed the score to 24-8. East Central then mishandled a Pearl River punt and the Wildcats recovered on the Warrior 19 and scored three plays later. The two-point try failed and the score was 24-14 with still 2:12 to play in the third quarter.
The East Central offense appeared to be on the verge of waking up when Asagunla connected with Caston on a 30-yard pass play to the Pearl River 42, when Caston dropped the football and the Wildcats recovered. Abney, who prepped at Sylva Bay Academy in Bay Springs, ended that Pearl River drive with an interception at the East Central 27.
Following a Warrior punt, Pearl River again got on the scoreboard with an 87-yard drive that culminated with an eight-yard touchdown scamper. With the PAT, East Central’s lead was 24-21 with 5:23 to play.
The Warriors were again forced to punt, but Abney’s second pick of the game ended a final Pearl River drive to preserve the East Central win.
Asagunla out of Hillcrest Christian in Jackson now has 10 touchdown passes through four games this season.
The Warrior win set up a possible Top 20 matchup next Thursday in Decatur. Current No. 20 East Central will host No. 1 East Mississippi with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. in Bailey Stadium on the ECCC campus. It will be the first meeting since 2013 between the two schools separated by only 55 miles.
The game can be heard on WKOZ Cruisin 98.3 or via audio stream and live stream video at www.eccc.edu/eccc-media.
Score by Quarter:
Team 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Final
ECCC 21 3 0 0 24
PRCC 0 3 5 13 21