December 28, 2013 11:12:53 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
East Mississippi Community College sophomore quarterback Dontreal Pruitt believes a football team's pursuit for perfection is never complete.
"Each week, we strive to play the perfect game," said Pruitt, who signed earlier this month with Troy. "Even though you want to play the perfect game, you never reach that point. That always means you have to something to work on the next week in practice."
While perfection might always seem elusive, the Lions came close this season.
EMCC went 12-0 en route to a fifth Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges North Division championship, a third MACJC state championship, and a second National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.
EMCC's season of perfection is The Dispatch's top local sports story for 2013.
"While the success on the football field speaks itself," EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens said, "what people do not realize is what a really great group of young men this was. They did everything with class. They are the kind of guys who will become leaders in every aspect of life. You are proud of them for winning a championship because of how hard they worked but also because of their character and determination in playing the game the right way."
EMCC is the third MACJC institution to win two NJCAA national championships, joining Northwest Mississippi C.C. and Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.
In 2011, EMCC won the school's first national championship and went 12-0. A year later, EMCC stretched the two-season win streak to 20 games before stunning back-to-back losses ended the season.
"Nothing hurts more than a one-point loss," said EMCC sophomore linebacker Christian Russell, who has signed with Ole Miss. "That was the biggest motivational factor going into the season. We worked so hard and made sure nobody cut a corner or took a day off. The results on the field backed up the determination of this team."
Offensively, EMCC led the nation with averages of 610.6 yards and 62.2 points per game.
Pruitt finished second in the nation with 3,939 passing yards and 45 touchdowns. Sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas, of West Point, finished sixth nationally with 1,334 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. C.J. Bates signed with Louisiana-Lafayette after placing 11th nationally with a team-best 855 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
"The main component of the offense around here is fun," Thomas said. "We go fast. Everything we do, whether it is lifting weights or going to class, we do it fast. When the offense runs to perfection, we feel like we are unstoppable. It is great when you play with so many play-makers. They have your night when you have an off night."
On defense, EMCC recorded a school-record five shutouts in the regular season. The Lions controlled their two MACJC playoff games and the Mississippi Bowl before the fourth quarter started.
"We took everything personal as a defensive unit," said EMCC sophomore defensive back A.J. Stamps, who signed with Kentucky. "Our goal was a shutout every game. However, we always took the field hungry, always wanting a three-and-out."
The closest margin of victory for EMCC was 17 points in a 45-28 MACJC semifinal round victory against Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was the only game all year EMCC trailed at halftime.
The state championship game wasn't as close. EMCC scored the first 37 points in a 61-24 victory against Jones Junior College. In the Mississippi Bowl, then-No. 2 EMCC beat then-No. 1 Georgia Military College 52-32 to win the national championship.
"Team speed on defense was the difference with that team," Jones JC coach Ray Perkins said. "They even had speed at each of their defensive line positions. When you can attack and fly to the ball like that, it is hard to generate any type of offense."
Pruitt, Russell, Stamps, defensive end Jimmie Gipson III, offensive lineman Avery Gennesy, and defensive lineman D.J. Pettway earned All-America honors. Gipson is headed to South Alabama, Gennesy is headed to Texas A&M, and Pettway is going back to Alabama.
Sophomore defensive back Byerson Cockrell, of Columbus, is headed to Nebraska. Offensive lineman Blake Sharp, of Heritage Academy, is headed to Louisiana Tech. Defensive lineman Jarran Reed will go to Alabama. Wide receiver Antoinne Adkins will join Bates at Louisiana-Lafayette. More signees are expected before the spring semester begins.
With Todd Mays, who led Olive Branch High School to a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A state championship in 2011, returning at quarterback and Preston Baker, who led Starkville High to the MHSAA Class 5A state championship in 2012, returning at running back, expectations are just as high for next season.
"It's time to get to work," Stephens said. "In this league, you can't rest. If you rest while someone else isn't, you won't continue to win."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter