December 9, 2013 9:27:29 AM
BILOXI -- East Mississippi Community College opened its football training camp for the season on a blistering hot August afternoon.
Sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas flashed his trademark smile and made a bold prediction. The former West Point High School standout predicted a 1,500-yard rushing season.
On a cold, windy, and wet afternoon on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Thomas completed his two-year career at EMCC awfully close to that prediction.
Thomas ran for a career-best 250 yards and three touchdowns as No.2 EMCC upset No. 1 Georgia Military College 52-32 before a capacity crowd at Biloxi High's Indian Stadium to win the sixth Mississippi Bowl and the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.
"We came here to ball. It is as simple as that," Thomas said. "This was the biggest game and we wanted to be the bigger team. I can't tell you what this means to all of us. The whole year was an unreal experience."
The NJCAA web site lists Thomas finishing the season with 1,334 yards and 18 touchdowns. Better than 60 percent of those yards came in EMCC's final five games.
The victory helped EMCC (12-0) win its second national championship in the past three seasons, complete an undefeated season for the second time in program history, and win its 32nd game in its last 34.
"Being a national champion is truly a humbling experience," said EMCC sophomore cornerback Byerson Cockrell, a former Columbus High Falcon. "You feel blessed to have been here and to have been a part of this. These will be my brothers for the rest of my life. To go out as champions means a lot."
EMCC, which won each of its games by at least 17 points, earned its final victory as it did so many times on Thursdays.
The special teams made big plays -- Kameron Myers had a game-clinching 74-yard kickoff return and Drew White drilled a 40-yard field goal for an early lead -- to give the team the early lead. Myers also had a punt block for a safety.
The defense gave the opposing quarterback no time to throw -- Jimmie Gipson was in on four sacks on the way to defensive MVP honors, while Allen Sentimore had the only takeaway on an interception.
The passing game was exceptional -- Dontreal Pruitt closed his EMCC career by being named national offensive player of the year after throwing for 340 yards and his 43rd, 44th, and 45th touchdowns, while Antoinne Adkins earned offensive MVP honors for the game with six catches for a career-high 186 yards and two scores. Pruitt completed two fourth-down passes for touchdowns.
Then there was Thomas.
On the game's second play, Pruitt gave Thomas the ball at the line of scrimmage. Thomas broke two tackles at the line, cleared the first-down marker by hurdling two tacklers, and went 60 yards.
"I don't know where the jump came from. It was pure instinct," Thomas said. "I was so amped to play this game. Maybe I was too high. But man, after that play, I knew it was going to be our game."
Thomas had two more carries before scoring the game's first touchdown.
GMC (11-1) scored the next 16 points. Freshman Jovon Robinson, the nation's leading rusher, didn't disappoint, as he had 36 carries for 231 yards and three touchdowns.
EMCC battled back from the 16-7 deficit to take a 17-16 lead on White's 40-yard field goal.
"Our kids have not faced a lot of adversity this year, but they sure were ready when they did," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "They hit us and we hit them right back. I thought you saw what a champion does when they are down."
GMC erased EMCC's 24-19 halftime lead when Robinson rambled 74 yards on the first play of the second half to give the Bulldogs a 25-24 lead.
"We knew it was time to go to work," Pruitt said after the game as he clutched a trophy that was almost as big as him. "We had fought too hard this year to let this one get away. It was our time, and we wanted to make sure we delivered."
Two possessions later, Pruitt found Adkins on 24- and 35-yard completions. Todd Mays, EMCC's short-yardage quarterback, capped the drive by scoring on a 3-yard run out of the pistol formation. The conversion failed, but EMCC had the lead for good at 30-25.
"Special. That is all I can say about this team," Mays said. "I don't know how you can have more fun playing football than we did this year."
EMCC scored three touchdowns in the third quarter. The Lions finished with 604 yards. They averaged 608.9 for the season.
"You saw an unstoppable offense when they get it going," GMC coach Bert Williams said. "We held in there as long as we could. Then the dam broke."
Thomas followed with a 26-yard touchdown run. GMC closed to 37-32 on Robinson's 34th touchdown. Myers slammed the door on the comeback with his kick return.
"We make plays," Myers said. "It doesn't matter who. Just tee the ball up, kick it off, and somebody is going to make a play."
EMCC made the plays like it did all season. Afterward, Thomas held the national championship trophy and flashed a broad smile. His prediction of 1,500 yards didn't come true, but the other prediction he made in August did.
"I told you we could be champions," Thomas said. "Everything we needed was right here. It feels even better than I thought it would."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. Southern Mississippi beats MSU in Pearl COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Blair has unique perspective on MSU-Washington matchup COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Mississippi players help MSU grow softball in state COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Tight ends could play bigger role for Mullen's Bulldogs COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Energized Bulldogs push on to Sweet 16 LOCAL COLUMNS