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December 4, 2013

TSOUKALAS: Mindset crucial to EMCC run

JACKSON — The trip down I-45 to Scooba is one of the loneliest in the state. To get close to anything remotely resembling a big city requires at least a 40 minute drive — that’s if you count Meridian, Starkville and Columbus as big cities.

    The local hot spot for East Mississippi Community College football players consists of a gas-station Subway about a mile down the road from campus — distractions are a rarity for the Lions. 

    With little else to do but study, sleep and strap on a helmet, the two years at EMCC often serve as a bootcamp of sorts for players to “get right” before advancing their playing careers. The process creates a sense of tunnel vision.

    Get in. Get better. Get out.

    Often lost in that process, however, is any sense of team unity. In the constant battle to earn a coveted Division I scholarship, individual success can easily supersede team achievements for JUCO players. It happened last year when a superior EMCC fell in its last two games to lesser teams.

    The lack of focus was apparent. Players worried more about the Lions No. 3 ranking than the actual games in front of them. Stats and playing time became more important than wins and team success. To no surprise, the lack of unity crippled the Lions, ultimately leading to one of the longest and most gnawing offseasons in program history.

    Key returners such as linebacker Christian Russell, defensive lineman Jarran Reed and wide receiver Antoinne Adkins knew if the Lions were going to reclaim their throne atop the JUCO world, a change would have to be made.

    “Scooba, it will make you or it will break you,” Adkins said. “You have to be tough to be in Scooba. We are in the middle of nowhere. We just had to be a family.”

    Then, a special thing happened early this season as the Lions roared past opponents at the same pace highway drivers speed past the desolate Scooba exit.     A bond began to grow among teammates. Stats no longer mattered, neither did rankings. EMCC began the season ranked a disappointing eighth in the National Junior College Athletic Association Poll, but not one complaint was made. On the field, the balanced Lions shared the ball among five receivers and three running backs. Instead of whining about playing time, head coach Buddy Stephens said his players would actually approach him during games encouraging him to spread out the snaps evenly among the team so everybody received their chance.

    “Last year in practice, there was a lot of selfishness,” Adkins said. “This year it’s completely different. Everybody comes in and does their job and make sure everybody stays fair. It’s just chemistry. Everybody here wants a ring, and we are all prepared to work.”

    The new team-first Lions began to roll, and as EMCC’s point differential rose so did its spot in the national rankings. Still, players took each game as its own never letting achievements or rankings get in the way of the ultimate goal — perfection.

    Sunday, No. 2 EMCC (11-0) will receive the opportunity to retake the national championship as they face No. 1 Georgia Military (11-0) in Biloxi for the Mississippi Bowl at 2 p.m. from Biloxi High School Stadium.

    With a 460-yard performance against the Bulldogs, the Lions will go down as the most prolific offense in junior college history. Just don’t expect anyone on the team to worry too much about it.

    Stats are so last year.

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