Champs, not cupcakes, on tap for VHS

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 11, 2002

[2/14/02] Vicksburg High baseball coach Jamie Creel doesn’t care much for cupcakes.

His team’s schedule certainly reflects that.

The Gators will play the toughest competition possible. There’s no room for relaxation on this schedule.

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“One of the things we decided when we were making out the schedule is that we need to take our program where we need to be,” Creel said. “We can sit here and win 24 ballgames playing a good schedule like last year, or we can try to break into the Top 15 teams in the state.

“The only way to do that is play the quality teams we do play.”

The Gators play seven of The Clarion-Ledger’s preseason Top 10 teams, including No. 1 Warren Central three times, No. 2 Hattiesburg, No. 3 Tupelo, No. 4 Pearl, No. 5 West Lauderdale, No. 8 Oak Grove, No. 9 Madison Central, No. 11 New Hope, No. 12 Meridian and No. 13 Northwest Rankin.

Three of those Class 5A WC, Class 4A Pearl and Class 3A West Lauderdale won state championships. Since 1984-85, Mississippi teams on Vicksburg’s schedule have combined to win 30 state championships.

“This is definitely going to be a challenge,” said junior shortstop Justin Henry, who hit .382 with 35 runs last season. “I know this, we’ll have to come ready to play every game or we’ll get destroyed. It will definitely test us mentally.”

In addition, the Gators play four Class 5A Louisiana powers in a spring break tournament in Ouachita Parish.

LSU and Stanford had scheduling conflicts, Creel said with a laugh.

“We went down the list of last year’s ranked teams and tried to schedule every one of them,” said Creel, whose team will also play Clinton and Forest Hill three times each as part of its division schedule. ” … We’re excited about this schedule.”

The division matchups could prove to be as tough as the non-division matchups. The last four years, it was almost understood before the season started that Warren Central and Vicksburg would advance to the playoffs because Greenville and Gentry provided little competition.

But Clinton, led by ex-WC coach Sam Temple, is expected to be improved and Forest Hill has one of its best teams in years.

Players and coaches don’t believe that the tough schedule will have any adverse effects, such as not getting young players into the game or getting down if they hit a losing streak.

“We don’t plan on getting beaten night after night,” Henry said. “We have as good a team in this state as anyone.”

Henry may be right.

A seasoned infield four juniors who have played together since they were 8 years old and a senior-filled outfield has the Gators right where Creel wants them.

Henry will join first baseman Paul Gorney, second baseman Josh McBride and third baseman Matt Middleton. McBride earned Vicksburg Post All-County honorable mention last year, hitting .300 with a .573 on base percentage.

“The infield will be our strong point,” Creel said. “We have four juniors out there who have played together for a long time.”

Henry was one of two Gators to make the All-County team. The difference this year is that he did not play basketball, meaning he had extra time to prepare.

“Nobody has seen the real Justin Henry yet,” Creel said. “About the first or second week of the summer, he really hits his stride because he hasn’t had as much practice as the other players. We expect big things from him.”

Senior Ryan Grey will replace Mitchell Beauman behind the plate, but where the Gators have an advantage is that Grey will be backed up by senior Jeremy Herring.

“That makes things a lot easier for me,” Grey said of having a senior back-up. “Jeremy has improved a ton since last year, and I know he’ll step right in when we need him and we’ll be fine.”

All-County pick J.J. Brown roams center field and is surrounded by seniors John Rohrer in right field and David Stagg in left.

“You hit it in the air and we should be able to chase it down,” Creel said.

Brown hit .425 with a county-best nine triples and was 20-for-20 on stolen bases, another key cog in Vicksburg’s offense.

Creel said his goal is for the team to steal 150 bases, or about five per game.

“Speed is the great equalizer and the great neutralizer,” Creel said.

If there is a question mark, it will be on the mound. Chris Middleton, who went 4-2 with a 3.08 ERA last year, will anchor a staff loaded with young lefties. Right-handers Bob Berry, Boo Hardy and Henry will also be counted on quite a bit, Creel said.

All-County honorable mention pick Justin Boler, as well as Adam Logue, freshman John Hendrix and sophomore James Jackson will see action.

“Pitching is always a concern for me,” Creel said. “Our pitchers are young and there are a ton of lefties. I hope they can locate their pitches and get some outs.”

The Gators will also have a new assistant coach in Tim Hughes. Jackie Williamson, the assistant for the past four years, is not coaching baseball anymore, but Creel said Hughes has fit in the scheme nicely.

“He’s been a really big help for us,” Creel said. “He’s a big asset to this program. He bleeds green and white and that should help us out a lot.”

Vicksburg opens its season Saturday with a doubleheader against Petal and Hattiesburg in a familiar place on the road. The Gators play just eight home games.

Vicksburg’s home opener won’t be until Feb. 26 against Madison Central.

“There’s a new attitude at this school, it’s feverish and it’s catching on,” said Creel, who noted the success of the football team as part of the new outlook on the Gators’ athletics.

” … I’m ready for people to see what kind of quality players we have, and I’m ready for our guys to get the respect others around here get.”