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New’ Gators glad to change plans for MC

[11/23/01]Johnny Daniels and the rest of Vicksburg High’s players, didn’t get to visit their relatives as much as usual over the Thanksgiving holidays.

And that’s just fine with them.

“My whole family … the relatives from out of town, are going to be surprised,” Daniels, a junior defensive lineman, said Tuesday. “They’re used to us being out by now.”

The Gators (9-3, 5-2 Region 2-5A), who face Madison Central (10-2, 6-1) at Memorial Stadium tonight, are in the Class 5A quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.

In recent years, “home for Thanksgiving” meant just that for the Gators.

This season, it means hosting a playoff game.

But the Gators aren’t content just to make it. Now that they’re here, they want to keep it going.

“We got a hard-fought road win and that helped the kids mature,” VHS coach Alonzo Stevens said of his team’s 29-28 first-round win at Columbus. “Everyone sees how it feels now.

“We’re down to eight (teams) now. I think our chances are good,” added Stevens, in his first year as head coach.

Stevens credited ex-head coach James Knox, who retired last year, for helping lay the foundation for the Gators’ success this year.

Daniels said Stevens deserves just as much credit.

“From the first day he became head coach, he made it clear what he expected of us,” Daniels said. “We have more discipline. People aren’t being as selfish.”

Stevens, always quick to credit his assistant coaches and his players, can put his team in the upper echelon by beating perennial power MC.

“I feel like we can compete with Madison Central,” he said.

The players do, too.

Vicksburg High’s game plan for Madison Central is simple, Daniels said.

“We just have to play on the same level as we did last time,” he said, referring to the Gators’ 10-0 loss at MC on Oct. 5. “We have to chop their (offensive) line down and let our linebackers do the work.”

The VHS defense, which allowed only one touchdown to MC in the previous meeting after a botched snap on a punt attempt, may not be at full strength tonight.

Top cornerback David Heard has been hobbled by turf toe the last two weeks and strong safety D’Eldrick Taylor, one of VHS’ best all around defenders, hyperextended his knee last week, Stevens said.

Quarterback Justin Henry should be back to full speed, Stevens said, after being slowed by a bad ankle the last two weeks. He passed for almost 250 yards vs. MC last time, but VHS was plagued by dropped passes and fumbles, most in the end zone.

“We’ve just got to make the plays,” Stevens said. “All we have to do is execute.”

If the Gators win, they will be playing for the North State championship somewhere in Warren County next week.

If Warren Central beats No. 2 Starkville tonight and VHS beats MC, the two will meet for the North State title with a trip to the Dec. 7 5A state championship game on the line at Viking Stadium on Nov. 30. If WC loses and VHS wins, the Gators will host Starkville. The Vikings would have to go to MC if they win and VHS loses.

MC coach Mike Justice, whose ball-control approach is the antithesis of the Gators’ high-octane style, has said his team’s recent playoff experience isn’t necessarily an advantage.

“Vicksburg is hungry,” he said.

Justice said he knew that Henry had been hurt, but “He’ll be back to full speed (tonight).”

He said the 1-2 punch of speedster J.J. Brown and bruiser Phelan Gray, combined with Henry’s passing ability, make the Gators tough to defense.

Linebackers Parys Haralson and Michael Evans and scrambling quarerback Dillon Sudduth pace MC.

“We’ve got a few nicked up,” Justice said, “But we’re ready to play.”