November 10, 2013 1:24:27 AM
SCOOBA -- Winning a state championship seemed like a foregone conclusion for the No. 2 East Mississippi Community College football team.
Granted, many felt that way about the Lions last season, too.
The heartache of last season's finish is what made this season's finish way sweeter.
EMCC claimed its third Mississippi Association of Community and Junior College state championships Saturday afternoon with a 61-24 dismantling of No. 4 Jones Junior College before a capacity crowd at Sullivan-Windham Field.
"This is what we have been working toward since January," EMCC sophomore quarterback Dontreal Pruitt said. "Sometimes you take things for granted. This year's team was not about to let that happen again. We wanted to prove we were the best."
EMCC did just that by attacking from all angles. It scored a touchdown or field goal on 6 of 7 possessions. It scored two defensive touchdowns and a safety. It also had a kick return touchdown.
"We can beat you in so many different ways," EMCC freshman wide receiver/kick returner C.J. Bates said. "If something is not working, we go to something else. Eventually, we will find something that is working."
EMCC (11-0) completed an undefeated regular season for the second time in program history. The Lions can match the school record for wins in a season when they play Dec. 8 in the Mississippi Bowl. The Lions are 5-0 in bowl games and state championship games under sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens.
"The team really rises to the challenge," Stephens said. "The bigger the stage, the better they play. There was little doubt that we were going to come out and give great effort. Jones has an excellent team, so it was up to them to try to match us."
EMCC won the first eight game last season and moved to third in the national rankings. A 20-game, two-season win streak was snapped by a one-point loss to Itawamba C.C. in the regular-season finale. The Lions lost out on their state title defense with a one-point loss to Copiah-Lincoln C.C. in the state playoffs a week later.
Seeing a potential national championship defense dashed by back-to-back one-point losses may for a long offseason.
"We didn't dwell on it but we sure used it for motivation," said EMCC sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas, who scored three times Saturday and became a 1,000-yard rusher for the season. "It was the little things we didn't do right. Special teams mistakes were big. It was just a little lost focus.
"We really used last season to motivate us to work harder this year. This season, we were not going to leave anything undone."
EMCC has only trailed one opponent this season. Saturday's state championship game proved anticlimactic as the Lions led 37-0 at halftime.
The Lions recorded four interceptions in the first half. For the season, EMCC has 29 interceptions, while the defense has a school-record five shutouts.
"We wanted to make sure nothing was easy this year," EMCC sophomore defensive back Ken Breland said. "Instead of a bend-but-don't break mentality, we tried to challenge the other team for every yard they got. The speed and potential on this team is scary."
This season, the Lions realized their potential. Still, there is work to be done.
"Being a state champion is great," said Pruitt, who threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns. "However, we have unfinished business. The motivation for this team was to not only get to this point but do even better.
"We are grateful champions because we have seen how it can be taken away from you at the last minute. We are also hungry champions. We want more."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter