July 16, 2013 1:32:27 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
SCOOBA -- While remaining one of the nation's premier programs, the East Mississippi Community College football team begins the 2013 season back below the national championship radar.
EMCC has earned a preseason national ranking of No. 6 by the JC Gridiron.com poll. The Lions should also appear in the Top 10 when the NJCAA releases its preseason national rankings next week. After winning the 2011 national championship, the Lions will at least be in the conversation for this year's title when the season kicks off Aug. 29 against Pearl River Community College at Dobie Holden Stadium in Poplarville.
The following week is the home opener against East Central Community College. A total of five regular season games will be played for the first time at the new Sullivan-Windham Field, according to the schedule released recently by the school.
"We feel fortunate to be back with the five home games," EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. "We didn't like how last season ended and the kids have been working hard during the off-season to make up for that."
After winning all 12 games played to secure that national championship, EMCC ran the two-season win streak to 20 straight games, with an 8-0 start in 2012. Eying another chance to play for the national championship, the Lions instead finished 8-2 and saw their season end with back-to-back one-point losses to Itawamba Community College in the regular season and Copiah-Lincoln Community College in the state playoffs. The fall from glory was so swift that EMCC did not even receive an at-large berth to one of the nation's eight bowl games.
"The margin for error is very small in this league," Stephens said. "You have to really be at your best each time you play. If you make mistakes, you are going to lose games. Our kids really handled the pressure and the expectations the entire season. For whatever reason, we didn't play well in the last two games."
With Stephens as coach, the Lions have appeared in a school-record five straight playoffs, won four North Division titles and the school's first two state championships. Building on those streaks will be a challenge in the always rugged Mississippi junior college ranks. Longtime nemesis Mississippi Gulf Coast Community does not appear on the EMCC's regular season schedule but could be a playoff opponent and begins the season No. 1 in the nation by JC Gridiron.com.
For the Lions, the challenges start with the opener. Longtime EMCC defensive coordinator and associate head coach William Jones left after the 2012 season to take over as head coach at Pearl River. Thus, Jones and Stephens meet as rivals in the opener after the pair work together in each of the past five seasons.
"With Coach Jones, it was about attention to detail," former EMCC defensive back Justin Cox, who is now at Mississippi State University. "We worked real hard to be the best defense possible. We took it personally when the other team got a first down or made a big play. We really wanted to challenge the other team for every yard they earned."
The Lions allowed one touchdown or less in five of 10 games last season, including three shutouts. A talented group of returnees bolster the EMCC defense and should be a focal point for the team again this season. Quarterback Dontreal Pruitt and former West Point standout Lakenderic Thomas should spark the offense.
EMCC's three non-division games come the first three weeks of the season. After facing off with Pearl River, the Lions return home for East Central and Southwest Mississippi Community College. Six straight division games follow, with No. 21 Northwest Mississippi Community College and No. 19 Itawamba Community College being the final two opponents on the schedule and the only two ranked opponents.
"Looking forward to the season and looking forward to seeing what this group can do," Stephens said. "They have worked awfully hard during the off-season. We have built a program here and the kids look forward to the challenge of upholding that tradition."
n Season tickets now on sale: season tickets are currently available for East Mississippi Community College's five-game 2013 home football schedule.
Available at a cost of $150, EMCC's 2013 season football tickets are for chair back reserved seating, which also includes preferential parking located near Sullivan-Windham Field for all Lion home football games. As an added feature, EMCC's 2013 season football ticket orders would also include tickets to any postseason football games to possibly be hosted by the Lions during the first two Saturdays of November.
East Mississippi football fans may order their season tickets online at www.EMCCAthletics.com or by contacting Ginnie Cody of the EMCC athletic office by calling 662-476-5728 or e-mailing [email protected] In addition to purchasing season tickets online via PayPal, EMCC fans may also order season tickets over the phone by using MasterCard or Visa.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter