The Meridian Star
The East Mississippi Community College football team has had a year to reflect on last year’s 24-23 loss to Itawamba Community College. Not only did the defeat snap a 20-game winning streak for the Lions, it also dashed any chance for then No. 3 EMCC to repeat as national champions.
Now hosting the Indians with a third-straight Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges North Division championship on the line, EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens is making sure his team doesn’t forget.
“We want them to remember why last year happened,” Stephens said. “We didn’t prepare very well, and they wanted it more than we did.”
East Mississippi (8-0, 5-0) and Itawamba (6-2, 4-1) have both clinched a spot in the MACJC playoffs. A win for either team would seal a home game against Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in the first round on Nov. 2. In addition, a win for the Lions would lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
EMCC is currently ranked No. 2 in the National Junior College Athletic Association football poll and is one of only two undefeated teams in the top 20. If EMCC wins the remainder of its games this season, the Lions would almost assuredly earn a spot in the NJCAA national championship.
“We don’t strive to just make it to the playoffs,” Stephens said. “We strive to be competitive nationally every year as well. In order to do that, we have to win our next three games.”
Here are five things to watch for during Thursday night’s game:
On top of the world: EMCC quarterback Dontreal Pruitt earned national honors Wednesday as he was named NJCAA Offensive Player of Week.
The achievement comes after Pruitt torched Northwest Mississippi Community College last week on 23-of-38 passing for 348 yards and seven touchdowns. Pruitt also added 32 yards on seven carries against the Rangers. Earlier in the day, Pruitt was also named MACJC Offensive Player of the Week.
“It’s a very big honor for him,” Stephens said. “Dontreal hasn’t had the same opportunities to put up some of the numbers that our quarterback have had in the past because he hasn’t played in a fourth quarter yet this season. To have that honor and not even play in a whole game, that’s big.”
Indians' balanced attack: Itawamba quarterback Griff Loftis is ranked No. 10 in the nation averaging 239.4 yards a game in the air. However, Stephens said the Indians can be just as deadly on the ground. So far this season, EMCC has only allowed 2.5 points per game and Stephens said his team is excited about the challenge Itawamba presents.
“I think our defensive squad is looking forward to it,” Stephens said. “We look forward to playing a team that balanced. They are probably as balanced as we are on offense.”
Winning first down: With such a talented offense, EMCC linebacker Laderrick Roberts said the key to stopping the Indians will be shutting them down early. The former Meridian High School standout said the Lions will look to limit the Indians on early downs to set up plenty of third-and-longs.
“Our game plan is to get lined up quick, hit them and stop them on first and second down,” Roberts said. “If we can do that, we’ll slow their momentum down.”
A little something extra: While Stephens said his team is not focussed on a payback against Itawamba, the Lions’ players and coaches still remember what it felt like to watch the Indians celebrate at their expense. After the game last season, ICC head coach Jon Williams posted a picture of an EMCC football with 24-23 printed on the side.
“Sure, we don’t forget how they acted during the game and after the game,” Stephens said. “But, it really is just the next game and the next rung on the latter.”
Up against State?: The Lions 7 p.m. start time Thursday night will come 30 minutes after Mississippi State kicks off against Kentucky in Starkville. Despite the conflicting start times, Stephens said he hopes EMCC will still bring a big crowd to cheer on the Lions as they play for the North title.
“We’ve got a lot on the line,” Stephens said. “We have some great kids, and I just hope the people come out.”