EMCC wins National championship

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, December 11, 2013

For the second time in three seasons, East Mississippi Community College has captured a National Championship.

And, in that same span, a trio of former Picayune standouts have gone from state champions to national champions as well.

The Lions wrapped up a perfect season by topping Georgia Military College 52-32 here at Biloxi Indian Stadium Sunday afternoon in the 2013 Mississippi Bowl.

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MACJC State Champion EMCC, which finished 12-0, also won the 2011 NJCAA National Championship with a victory in the El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Ariz.

EMCC cornerback Ken Breland, along with center Jacob Feeley both saw action for the Lions in the big win. Also, offensive lineman Cooper Esslinger is enjoying a red-shirt season for the Lions.

Sunday, the Lions fought through a sluggish defensive start and rode big offensive performances from Lakenderic Thomas, Antoinne Adkins and Dontreal Pruitt to the national title victory.

Adkins was chosen EMCC’s Most Valuable Offensive Player in the contest after hauling in several acrobatic catches and finishing with six receptions for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Pruitt, who threw for 340 yards and three scores, was chosen the Mississippi Bowl Committee’s Player of the Year.

Thomas, meanwhile, bulldozed his way through the Georgia Military defense — carrying tacklers on his way to a punishing 234-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance.

“So many of our guys had big games or made big plays that all contributed to the win in the end,” EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens said. “I honestly could not be prouder of the way our young men played and I’m so happy for all they’ve accomplished.

“Our guys were looking forward to this from the very first day of summer. They were focused and they showed tremendous leadership. I love these kids, love our fans, love East Mississippi Community College.”

Stephens is a former player and assistant coach at Pearl River Community College.

Defensive lineman Jimmie Gipson III was chosen as his team’s Most Valuable Defensive Player after being in on four sacks in the contest.

EMCC found itself down two scores in the first quarter before taking control.

On the second play of the game, Thomas busted a 60-yard run — hurdling a defender and setting up his own 1-yard touchdown plunge. That put EMCC up 7-0 just 59 seconds into the game; yet Georgia Military answered with a score of its own 33 seconds later and the wild, seesaw affair was on.

Jovon Robinson, the nation’s leading rusher, finished with 215 yards on 34 carries for Georgia Military. His 21-yard prance into the end zone at the 8:44 mark of the first quarter put the Bulldogs ahead 13-7 and a field goal two minutes later made it 16-7. Thomas bulldozed tacklers on a 15-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, then Adkins took over offensively in the second period.

With EMCC leading 17-16, Allen Sentimore picked off a Georgia Military pass at his own 5-yard line — his nation-leading ninth interception of the season — to snuff a Bulldog drive and set up one for EMCC. A 45-yard completion from Pruitt to Adkins got the Lions out of the hole and a couple of plays later, Adkins hauled in a 28-yard touchdown.

Adkins, who missed all of the 2012 season with an injury, was also a member of the 2011 national championship team. His second scoring catch of the game came late in the third quarter and pushed EMCC ahead 44-32.

“It was real hard for me to see my team come up short last year,” Adkins said. “This year was incredible. Today was incredible.”

Thomas also had another touchdown in the third quarter; then EMCC did all the scoring in the fourth when Ken Breland blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety and C.J. Bates hauled in a circus catch on a tipped ball.

EMCC become the third Mississippi school (with Mississippi Gulf Coast and Northwest Mississippi) to win multiple national championships. The Lions are now a remarkable 56-10 under Stephens during the past six seasons, a period which has included five MACJC North Division championships, three MACJC state and NJCAA Region 23 championships and three bowl victories. The Lions also captured the 2009 Mississippi Bowl, defeating Arizona Western 27-24.

“You win one … OK, you’ve won a national title,” Stephens said. “But you win a second, people start taking notice. To get that second national championship … to go out and beat a team like (NJCAA Football Coaches Hall of Famer) Bert Williams’ No. 1 ranked team and put yourself on a national stage, I really think our program made a statement.”