The wait is finally over.

The Jeff Sims era at Missouri Southern officially kicks off tonight at 6 when the Lions play host to the Nebraska-Kearney Lopers at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.

“(This week) is an opportunity to show the work these young men have put in,” Sims said during an MSSU press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “I would tell you that we have challenged them since the day we got here to be the best students and best football players that we can be. … Tomorrow we’re going to take our first shot at being a great college football program.”

For Sims, a former head coach at Garden City Community College who won an NJCAA national championship in 2016 and made the title game again in 2018, today’s MIAA football clash will mark his first career game as a Division II coach.

His top priority in tonight’s opener?

“I hope this comes off the right way, but it’s most important to me to leave a positive impression on the players,” Sims said. “The players have worked so hard. I would love the fans to enjoy what the players do. But I want, really bad, to go out and do something that when the players walk off the field, they’re proud of themselves. Because then we can continue to build and they understand the work ethic and why we put that in.

“The problem with the demand that we’ve asked them to give us is if they go out there and they don’t see the purpose of what they did. So I’m really concerned that the players have a positive experience and see why we’ve done what we’ve done.”

Missouri Southern, coming off a 1-10 season, is seeking its first win in a season opener since 2013 when it knocked off Central Oklahoma 52-38 to open an eventual 7-3 campaign.

UNK, which defeated Southern 45-0 last year en route to a 5-6 season, holds a 10-7 lead in the all-time series between the two programs. Nebraska-Kearney and Southern have been ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, in both the preseason media and coaches polls.

“I’ve seen these guys take major leaps (since the start of fall camp), but the reality is we’re judged by what happens on the scoreboard,” Sims said. “So we need to go out and prove that we’ve been working hard.”

STARTING QB NAMED

Sims revealed Wednesday that former Iowa State standout Jacob Park will be at quarterback for Southern’s first offensive snap.

Throughout the team’s fall camp, Park took part in a three-man competition for the starting role with returning starter Sean Kelly and Garden City transfer Dwayne Lawson. Kelly was announced Wednesday as Park’s backup, but Sims said there’s a likelihood all three QBs will see action in the opener.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see all three guys play at a certain time,” Sims said. “Jacob Park is an outstanding football player and a very talented young man. I think the reason he’s starting is because it puts our best football team out on the field. Dwayne Lawson can do other things also.”

Sims commended Kelly for his work ethic and attitude throughout Southern’s coaching transition in the offseason.

“I want it publicly known what a great young man Sean Kelly is. It would be so easy in this day and age for a new coach to come in (and Kelly say), ‘Hey, you brought in Dwayne and Jacob. … I don’t fit here.’ He’s never done that once. He’s gone out every day and battled.”

JAMES IMPRESSES AT RB

Dalton James’ peers often referred to him as a “workhorse” last season when he amassed 739 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 195 carries.

Since the start of fall camp, the senior running back has made a similar impression on his new head coach.

“The fact of the matter is Dalton James may have had the best camp of any running back that we have,” Sims said. “He went out there and proved that he wants to be the starting running back.”

And the starting RB role is what James earned by Wednesday when MSSU released its two-deep depth chart for Week 1. He and Garden City transfer Charles West, a junior who led the NJCAA with 1,492 rush yards last season, were tabbed as the Lions’ top two offensive backs.

“Coming here, I probably looked at this as a place where Charles West would be a featured guy,” Sims said. “I think the other talent has shown us that they can play. So we may be able to do some other things with Charles.”

UNK AT MSSU

KICKOFF: 6 p.m.

SITE: Fred G. Hughes Stadium, Joplin, Missouri

COACHES: Jeff Sims, 1st year at MSSU (0-0). Josh Lynn, 3rd year at UNK (8-14).

RECORDS: Opener for both teams.

SERIES: Nebraska-Kearney leads 10-7 overall and is 6-2 in Joplin.

RADIO: WMBH (1560 AM, 101.3 FM), KHST (101.7 FM), KXMS (88.7 FM), 5:30 p.m.

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