(PHOTO: EMCC Coach Buddy Stephens and EMCC President Dr. Rick Young (far left) with MACJC Commissioner Jim Southward (right)
SCOOBA – The second-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College captured their third state football title in five years by cruising to a 61-24 home victory over fourth-ranked Jones County Junior College during Saturday’s MACJC State Championship Game played in front of a packed house at EMCC’s Sullivan-Windham Field.
Previously state champions in 2011 and 2009 and national champions two years ago, head coach Buddy Stephens’ 11-0 EMCC Lions have secured an automatic berth to compete in next month’s Mississippi Bowl, slated for Sunday, Dec. 8 in Biloxi, and will now await the release of Monday’s NJCAA Top 20 rankings and Tuesday’s announced NJCAA bowl game matchups to determine their official postseason destination. Current No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Georgia Military College, an NJCAA independent without a direct tie to a bowl game, concludes its regular season Sunday versus Lackawanna College.
In their first gridiron meeting with Jones County since 2009, the home-standing Lions scored the first 37 points of Saturday’s title game to take that margin into halftime. A 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive set the stage for the NJCAA’s top-ranked offense, as sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas scored his first of three rushing touchdowns on the day from two yards out at the 10:16 mark.
The first of four pass interceptions, in the first half alone, by the nation’s stingiest defense set up the Lions’ second score of the contest. On the heels of Byerson Cockrell’s third interception of the season, EMCC All-American quarterback candidate Dontreal Pruitt hit Kameron Myers in the front-left corner of the end zone with 3:32 left in the quarter to make it 14-0.
East Mississippi’s vaunted defensive unit would then account for three of the Lions’ next four scores. With the first quarter winding down following a Pruitt interception in the red zone, sophomore defensive end D.J. Pettway atoned for the miscue by sacking JCJC quarterback Kenneth Coleman in the end zone for a safety.
Two minutes into the second quarter, EMCC sophomore linebacker Christian Russell stepped in front of a Steven Swindle pass and rumbled 25 yards for the score to extend the lead to 23-0 with 13:07 still left in the opening half. Russell’s second interception of the season also marked his second touchdown on the year, as the North Carolina native previously scored on a 20-yard fumble recovery during Week 2 versus East Central.
Less than two minutes later, fellow EMCC linebacker Demetrius Cain, of Hazlehurst, followed suit by claiming his second pass interception of the year. However, Pruitt was later intercepted again in the red zone to mark the Laurel product’s first multi-pick game of the season.
After Pruitt threw his 42nd touchdown pass of the season on a 27-yard scoring strike to Brandon Acker at the 6:35 mark, Swindle, on the next play from scrimmage, was picked off by Allen Sentimore, who raced 43 yards to pay dirt for EMCC’s seventh pick-six pass interception of the season – all by different players. As Sentimore became tied for the individual lead nationally with his eighth interception of the year, the Lions added to the team’s NJCAA-leading total with their 29th pick of the campaign.
Trailing 37-0 at the intermission, Jones County finally got on the scoreboard when Grant McLaurin booted a 33-yard field goal at the 13:41 mark of the third quarter. EMCC freshman kicker Drew White countered two minutes later by knocking home a 21-yard field goal to make the score 40-3.
The two teams ended the third-quarter scoring by also exchanging touchdowns. Midway through the period, Thomas powered over the right side from nine yards out for his second score of the day. The Bobcats then tallied their first touchdown of the game on Coleman’s 41-yard scoring pass to Dylan Bossier at the 6:13 mark.
EMCC’s 37-point halftime margin would stay intact as the Lions and Bobcats traded a pair of touchdowns apiece during the final quarter. The home team matched JCJC’s 61-yard touchdown pass from Coleman to Taylor Higgason with Thomas’ third score of the contest just three minutes later. Thomas’ 1-yard burst at the 6:46 mark capped a fourth straight game individually with 100 or more rushing yards that put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the year and gave the West Point product the team lead with 15 rushing touchdowns on the season.
The Lions capped their celebratory afternoon at the 3:28 mark by answering Jones County’s final score of the day with a 45-yard return by Myers on the Bobcats’ ensuing kickoff to account for the final 61-24 outcome.