December 10, 2013 12:53:12 PM
BILOXI -- East Mississippi Community College left little doubt it was the best junior college football team in the nation this season.
EMCC's status as the nation's No. 1 became official late Monday after it claimed all nine first-place votes in the National Junior College Athletic Association's final rankings.
"It feels really great to be national champions," EMCC freshman reserve quarterback Todd Mays said. "From being around here all year, I know how disappointing last season was. It feels good to help the team get over the hump this year."
EMCC final point total of 210 easily outdistancing No. 2 Iowa Western College (11-1).
Then-No. 2 EMCC defeated then-No. 1 Georgia Military College 52-32 on Sunday to win the Mississippi Bowl at Biloxi High School's Indian Stadium. EMCC and Iowa Western, which beat Butler C.C. 6-0 in the Graphic Edge Bowl in Cedar Falls, Iowa, each moved up one spot in the poll.
Iowa Western won the 2012 NJCAA national championship, while EMCC has two titles in the past three seasons. Georgia Military College (11-1) slipped to third in the final rankings.
"This team got better throughout the season, and that is what a championship team does," EMCC sophomore defensive back Ken Breland said. "Our No. 1 goal was to win the national championship. There was a void last season when we didn't get the job done."
EMCC carried a 20-game, two-season winning streak into the final week of the 2012 regular season. However, Itawamba C.C. denied EMCC a chance at a repeat national title with a one-point victory. A loss to Copiah-Lincoln C.C. -- also by one point -- in the first round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges playoffs denied EMCC a repeat state title.
"That season ended the way it did provided us all of the motivation we needed," said EMCC sophomore running back Lakenderic Thomas, who ran for 250 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Military College. "It's one thing to lose. It's another thing when you lose by a point. We had the offseason to think about what we should have done.
"The coaches got us back up. They told us not to dwell on last season but to remember it and use it as motivation."
EMCC did just that, winning all 12 games it played this season. The smallest margin of victory was in a 45-28 victory against Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. in the MACJC semifinals. That was the only game EMCC trailed at halftime.
"It was a special group," EMCC sixth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. "What people who aren't around them every day don't understand is that it is a great group of men. These are very high-character guys who will be successful in whatever they do in life."
While ranked in the top 10 throughout the season, EMCC didn't reach No. 1 until the final poll. The 2011 squad -- which also finished 12-0 -- had the same fate.
EMCC has finished 10th (2008), fourth (2009), 15th (2012), and first twice (2011 and 2013) in the final rankings. EMCC's victory Sunday helped it become the third MACJC team with two national championships. It joins Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. and Northwest Mississippi C.C. Mississippi Delta C.C. and Pearl River C.C. also have won national championships recognized by the NJCAA.
EMCC was the only MACJC North Division team ranked in the final poll. Four MACJC South Division teams -- division champion Jones Junior College (No. 8), division runner-up Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. (No. 9), Copiah-Lincoln C.C. (No. 11), and Brazos Valley bowl participant Hinds C.C. (No. 18) -- were ranked.
n In other EMCC football news, quarterback Dontreal Pruitt committed to Troy University on Sunday after the game and linebacker Christian Russell committed to Ole Miss on Monday.
Second-year junior college players who have completed degree work can sign with senior colleges beginning Monday, making them eligible to enroll at their senior colleges for the spring semester.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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