With 14 returning starters, Gators’ goal is 2002 title

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 3, 2001

Justin Henry of VHS escapes the pass rush of Starkville’s Chaz Harris, right, and Shawn Johnson in Friday night’s finale.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[12/03/01]Vicksburg High coach Alonzo Stevens walked around the locker room, hugging his seniors, one by one, after Friday night’s 38-31 loss to Starkville in the North State championship game.

But even before that, he was already embracing the future.

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“I challenged those young guys,” Stevens said, his eyes still misty after an emotional postgame speech. “Those seniors put us on that level. I think we’ve turned the corner.”

With a senior class of 14, including eight starters four on offense and four on defense the Gators will lose several key players. But they also return 14 starters.

J.J. Brown, who led the team in rushing and receiving, may be the toughest to replace. Then there’s offensive linemen Andre Bennett and Charles Wilson and tight end Walter Warfield; on defense, cornerbacks David Heard and Chris Humes and linebackers Tim Brown and Decorey Knight were all big-time playmakers.

Still, plenty of players believe the Gators can be right back in the title hunt next year. That’s why there was a hint of hope to go with the sense of sorrow in the locker room after “time ran out on the Gators,” as Stevens said after his team’s comeback bid fell short against Starkville, which has 35 seniors, including all 11 on defense.

“They’ll make up for it next year,” Brown said.

Two of the main reasons for the optimism: quarterback Justin Henry and fullback Phelan Gray. They combined for more than 2,600 yards and 30 touchdowns. Both are juniors who highlight a solid returning nucleus to a team that finished 10-4, made it to the Class 5A “final four,” and traded punches with a veteran team that has a record of success.

“I think we learned a lot,” said Stevens, who, in his first year as a head coach, led the Gators to their best season since 1991 and their first playoff win since 1993. “Come late November and early December, we want to be playing every year now.

“They learned what it takes to get there. They saw it.”

While Starkville gets ready to make a trip to Jackson to play Moss Point for the Class 5A state championship this week, the Gators went back to work today to get ready for that trip to Jackson in 2002.

“We’ve just got to work harder … I’m ready to start (today),” said Gray, a bruising junior fullback who had 1,060 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns this season, many while dragging defenders.

Henry, who completed passes on fourth-and-7 and fourth-and-12 on the final drive before time ran out, was another one of the Gators who walked off the field looking more determined than depressed.

“We took the Number 2 team down to the wire,” said Henry, who also had several key first-down runs. “This will help us build on the future. We lose some really good people, but the younger players learned how good we can be, and now we know what it takes.”

VHS offensive coordinator Jackie Williamson and Stevens called Henry “a warrior” after his performance.

“There’s no one any cooler under pressure,” Stevens said.

Williamson pointed out that this year’s group of seniors won only one game in junior high.

“They all helped bring this program to the next level,” he said.

That’s why saying goodbye to them was so tough for Stevens.

“They were my first seniors,” he said, his voice cracking.

But a smile quickly returns when he thinks of the players coming back: Henry, Gray, offensive linemen Junior Nix, Delvecchio Ellis and Paul Gorney; receivers Maurice Taylor, Quinton Miles and running back Michael Rainey. Then there’s the defense. VHS will return its entire defensive front Casey Younger, Derrick Adams and Johnny Daniels as well as linebackers Ray Kline, Rory Johnson and defensive backs Jermaine Wright and D’Eldrick Taylor. And there are plenty of other promising young players on the way up.

“We’re losing some great seniors, but we’ve got some great young players coming back,” Williamson said. “They just have to hit the weights and start getting stronger.”

And they’re ready to do just that.

“I feel bad for the seniors,” said Johnson, who caused two fumbles, one on a sack, Friday night. “It makes me want to play harder, to get in the weight room. If we do that, I think we can make it all the way next year.”