August 26, 2014 7:23:24 PM
Allen Sentimore remembers his first football game at East Mississippi Community College.
"I looked out at the field and saw so many talented players," Sentimore said. "It takes you a little realize that you belong out here and that you can really play with these guys."
Sentimore has recovered from shoulder surgery and looks forward to being a major contributor in Jordan Lesley's defensive unit again this season. A year ago, Sentimore led the National Junior College Athletic Association with nine interceptions.
This season starts Thursday when top-ranked EMCC begins its NJCAA national title defense by taking on Southwest Mississippi Community College.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Hurst Stadium in Summit.
"We are excited about starting the season because we are going to bring some more excitement," Sentimore said. "We have a lot of young guys but they are talented. They know how to make plays. We expect some big things. Last year's defense was really good. This year, we think we can be great."
Sentimore was a junior defensive back and kick returner at Laurel High School when the Golden Tornadoes played for the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A state championship in 2011. Five members of that team played on last season's national championship team at EMCC.
"I think it is important to be around a bunch of winners," Sentimore said. "That was the biggest challenge for me when I got here. I had to grow the same way the other players were growing. It is all about a mind-set. It is about a positive mind-set. It is about having a winning mind-set. You have to believe you are going to succeed that nothing will stop you."
EMCC won all 12 games it played last season. The Lions allowed 9.8 points per game. As a defensive unit, EMCC recorded 30 interceptions and recovered 12 fumbles.
"Allen really became a leader of what we were trying to do on defense," Lesley said. "It is hard to get that complete sell-out mentality. The guys were all in it together. Everybody worked hard every day to make sure this was the best defensive unit in the state and nation."
When Lesley took over the EMCC defense last season, few changes in scheme took place. However, the Lions did work at a more frantic pace. Already known for a high-octane, hurry-up offense, EMCC brought the same detail to the defensive side of the ball.
"We go fast at everything we do," Sentimore said. "It is all about communication. Nobody is better at communicating than we are. We go fast and hard at practice. That is why we are ready for the games. Pretty much everything that we have seen in practice will be things that we will see in games."
EMCC begins the season as the nation's top-ranked team for the second time in three seasons. Having won the national championship in 2011 and 2013, EMCC will try to become the first NJCAA team to win three titles in four seasons.
"There is a lot of pressure on us but it is not greater than the pressure we put on ourselves," Sentimore said. "We set high goals here. Each year, the goal is to compete for the national championship. We strive for perfection and that is what really motivates us. Every team has room to grow. There is always a chance to play a better game. Winning another championship is what motivates us. It drives us."
A year ago, EMCC posted a school-record five shutouts. With some new faces in the offensive backfield, the EMCC defense will be asked to set the standard as the season unfolds. While Southwest has only won two games in the past two seasons, third-ranked Copiah-Lincoln Community College will be the opponent in the Sept. 4 home opener.
"Every player will say the same thing," Sentimore said. "Our goal is to end each week with a 1-0 record. All of our energy is spent each week making enough plays to make sure we win that game. The best thing about the team last year is that we never looked ahead. We always worried about what we were doing that week. Those are some of the lessons we are trying to pass on to the new guys this season."
For Sentimore, his long journey has brought him from a wide-eyed freshman to a veteran leader.
"It is exciting to go to practice every day with this group," Sentimore said. "They want to be special. Around here, we can make that happen."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter