Oh, Henry … Gators may let it fly vs. Falcons

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 15, 2001

Justin Henry, with a brace on his left ankle, drops back to pass during Vicksburg High’s practice Wednesday afternoon.(The Vicksburg Post/CHRISTIN FLOWERS)

[11/15/01]Justin Henry is still rehabbing a sprained ankle as much as he’s practicing.

Come Saturday, his right arm may need some attention.

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“We’re looking to throw it a lot,” the junior quarterback said Tuesday.

Though he’s still not 100 percent healthy, the Gators (8-3) will have Henry back in the starting lineup for Friday night’s first-round playoff game at Columbus (7-3).

He’s rarin’ to go, especially after last week’s 27-14 loss at archrival Warren Central.

“It’s better than it was,” Henry said of his ankle. “I’m just ready to get back out there.”

Henry, hobbled by his bad ankle, relieved surprise starter Arthur Hicks in the second half and tossed two interceptions.

A win this week would more than make up for that, he said.

“I would much rather win a playoff game than beat Warren Central,” said Henry, who is 78-of-131 for 1,058 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Getting the players over that emotional loss and focused on the Falcons has been coach Alonzo Stevens’ challenge.

“We watched film and talked about (WC) Monday, but that was it,” Stevens said. “It hurts to lose one you’re so up for, but we have to stay focused.

“There are 16 teams left. We’re one of them and everyone’s 0-0 now.”

The Gators don’t lack confidence.

A soccer game that was scheduled for tonight was moved to Link Field in Bovina instead of Memorial Stadium, which is where VHS would host the Madison Central-Greenville winner on Nov. 24 if it wins Friday.

Stevens doesn’t mind looking that far ahead to motivate his players.

“We’ve talked about that,” he said. “We get to host if we take care of business.”

First, the Gators will have to stop Columbus.

“We’ve got good team speed and we’re strong, but we’re not as big as Vicksburg,” said Columbus coach Roy McCrory, who took over a team that finished 0-11 in 1996 and has made it to the playoffs three straight seasons.

McCrory, who was a finalist for the VHS job this summer, met several Gators during his second interview.

“I felt like they had good athletes or I wouldn’t have been there,” said McCrory, who decided to stay at Columbus. “They’re huge.”

After a 10-3 finish last year, including a playoff win at Madison, the Falcons’ only losses of 2001 were to Amory, South Panola and Starkville. Each one went down to the final seconds.

“If it comes down to a luck contest, we’re going to lose,” McCrory said, laughing.

He’s not laughing about his team’s injury situation. McCrory said three offensive starters and two defensive starters are questionable. He didn’t want to name the players.

The Gators may still be without top cornerback David Heard, who missed the WC game with turf toe.

“I feel like he’ll try to play,” Stevens said. “The swelling is going down.”

The Falcons rely on their running game and hard-nosed defense, much like WC and Forest Hill, VHS’ last two opponents.

Junior tailback Steven Pusha (5-9, 188) and senior quarterback Chris Maddox (6-3, 190) lead the team in rushing. Pusha has 150 carries for 803 yards and six TDs. Maddox has 111 carries for 334 yards and five TDs and has also been efficient in the air, going 63-of-132 for 810 yards and 11 TDs with only three interceptions. His favorite target is wide receiver Bruce Edwards (29 catches, 591 yards, eight TDs).

“We’re pretty balanced,” McCrory said.

Still, the Falcons’ strength is on the ground. They held the ball for 33 minutes in their 21-14 loss to Starkville last week, holding the Yellowjackets to minus-9 yards rushing and just five offensive plays in the second half.

“They have the ability to keep the ball away from you on offense,” Stevens said. “You have to do something with it when you get it.”

That’s where Henry comes in.

“They bring a lot of pressure … Their weakness is their defensive backs,” Henry said. “Our receivers have the advantage against them.”

That could mean a big night for Henry and J.J. Brown (24 catches, 345 yards), who leads a group of nine receivers with three receptions or more. The speedy senior also leads the team in rushing with 93 carries for 859 yards.

But the workhorse is 231-pound fullback Phelan Gray (142 carries-768 yards, 11 catches-87 yards), who has 12 TDs to Brown’s 11.

Stevens said Columbus reminds him of Madison Central, the only team to shut out the Gators this year.

But he doesn’t consider that a bad omen.

“If we play, we’ll be OK,” he said.

Stevens said he apologized to Henry for putting him in last week’s game after he hadn’t practiced all week.

“I shouldn’t have put him in that situation,” Stevens said. “We’re fortunate he didn’t get hurt worse.”