November 10, 2013 1:25:49 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
SCOOBA -- East Mississippi Community College sophomore defensive back Byerson Cockrell walked gingerly but had a big smile on his face.
"I have never played on a state championship team," said Cockrell, a former standout at Columbus High School. "This is a special feeling. I always wanted to know what this would feel like. It feels even better than I had imagined.
"Even though I haven't made the major contributions I wanted to, this feels great. It has been a fun year."
An interception by Cockrell was one of four first-half turnovers forced by the Lions' defense. Cockrell's interception came early and was a foreshadowing of the onslaught to follow.
Strong defensive play set the tone as No. 2 EMCC cruised to a 61-24 victory against No. 4 Jones Junior College in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior College's state championship game played before an overflow crowd at Sullivan-Windham Field.
With the victory, EMCC (11-0) earned an automatic invitation to the Mississippi Bowl on Dec. 8 at Indians Stadium on the campus of Biloxi High. While official bowl pairings won't be announced by the National Junior College Athletic Association until Monday, it is assumed EMCC will meet No. 1 Georgia Military College (10-0) for the NJCAA national championship.
"We are going to celebrate tonight because we just won a state championship," said EMCC freshman running back Preston Baker, who played a major role in Starkville High's run to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state championship last season. "To be state champions in back-to-back years, well, I feel truly blessed.
"This is a special team. There was not any doubt we were not going to be denied. When we play our best, we are hard to stop."
EMCC played close to its best Saturday.
In the first half, the Lions had three offensive touchdowns, two defensive touchdowns, and a safety to build a 37-0 halftime lead. EMCC bullied the high-powered Jones offense in the opening half. D.J. Pettway, Christian Russell, Jarran Reed, and Jimmie Gipson made life miserable for two quarterbacks, as Jones had 122 yards in the opening half.
"We knew this was for the championship, so we had to be at our best," Russell said. "Now was the time to pull out all the stops. We were at home and we had a big crowd. We really wanted to make the stadium rock. After the first couple of series, you could tell (Jones) was not confident anymore. They weren't sure what to do with us."
EMCC punted on two of its first three possessions. It is not uncommon for the defense to lead the charge while the offense is finding its legs.
Cockrell's interception gave EMCC a short field for its second touchdown. The Lions moved 44 yards on seven plays, with Dontreal Pruitt hitting Kameron Myers for a 3-yard touchdown pass.
EMCC had another big defensive play minutes later. With the Bobcats taking over on their 7-yard line after an interception, Pettway and Reed teamed up to sack quarterback Steven Swindle for a safety that made it 16-0.
"Our defense really brought it in this game," said EMCC sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas. "They always have our backs. They can make a game a blowout in a matter of minutes. They make our job a whole lot easier."
Russell had a 25-yard interception return for touchdown early in the second quarter. Demetrius Cain had an interception on the next possession. After a Pruitt-to-Brandon Acker offensive touchdown, Allen Sentimore made it four interceptions in the half -- and two returned for scores -- with a 42-yard touchdown run.
"They have one of the finest junior college teams ever assembled," Jones coach Ray Perkins said. "On defense, they have some special athletes and some incredible speed."
After the first-half explosion, it was a formality before the trophy was presented and family members took the playing surface for photos with it and their favorite EMCC players.
"We have been focused the whole season on winning this game," said EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens, who has led the Lions to the program's only three state championships in football. "You want to win the national championship game, but the only guarantee you have to start the season is the state championship game.
"This has been the expectation from the first practice. For the team to be able to handle those expectations and to be able to conduct themselves in a professional manner week in and week out is special."
Thomas scored three touchdowns and became the state's first 1,000-yard rusher. Pruitt threw for 191 yards and also tossed touchdown passes Nos. 41 and 42.
In the second half, the Bobcats put together a couple of extended scoring drives against reserves. Jones outgained EMCC, 485-430. That number had little significance as the EMCC band posed for postgame photos with the team and the cheerleaders.
"We are playing on a high level," said EMCC freshman running back/quarterback Todd Mays, who was part of a MHSAA Class 6A state championship team at Olive Branch High. "It has been fun to be a part of this. Everyone all years has assumed we would win the championship. That does not make it any less sweet when we get to hold the trophy."
After posing for numerous photos, Stephens was ready for a postgame meal. Today, all thoughts will turn toward helping EMCC win a second national championship.
"You play 11 games to try to play the 12th," Stephens said. "I want the kids to enjoy this. They have earned it, but then it is all business because there is one more to get."
Cockrell was growing very fond of being a state champion Saturday night. Soon, he will want to feel something different.
"I haven't been a national champion, either," Cockrell said. "I think that feeling would be off the charts."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter