Oh, Henry! Gators’ standout picks Ole Miss for baseball

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 9, 2002

[10/09/02]Justin Henry will join Eli Manning at the same university next year just not on the same field.

The standout Vicksburg High quarterback verbally committed to play baseball at Ole Miss next season, making him the third Warren County player to sign with the Rebels in the last two years.

Several Division I-A schools, including the state’s big three, had recruited the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Henry to play football, but he said Tuesday that he has always wanted to pursue baseball.

“It was kind of tough, but I’ve been wanting to play baseball since I was 2 years old,” Henry said. “It’s the first thing I learned and it’s what I love more than anything.

“I enjoy playing football, but there’s something about baseball. I can go out and play baseball at any time and I don’t always feel that way about football.”

Henry had a baseball recruiting trip planned to the University of Alabama on Saturday, but will not go. Stanford, Notre Dame, Clemson and Mississippi State all showed major interest.

“I know a few of the guys on the team and felt at home up there,” said Henry, who was among almost 300 recruits on the Ole Miss campus to watch the Rebels football team beat Florida last weekend.

“It was where I was thinking about going anyway so I am happy they gave me the opportunity.”

The Rebels were ranked in baseball for most of last season before a late-season collapse derailed a shot at making an NCAA Regional. Ole Miss finished 37-19, but earned the 16th best recruiting class ranking by Collegiate Baseball magazine this past season.

Among the recruits signed were former Warren Central players Brian Pettway and John Morgan Mims.

“I played on the same team with John Morgan a lot when I was younger, but I haven’t played on the same team as Brian,” said Henry, who also watched the Rebels’ Blue and Red baseball scrimmage on Saturday. “They are two great players and now I get the opportunity to go up and play with them and the rest of the guys.”

A three-year baseball starter for the Gators, Henry earned The Vicksburg Post All-County honors the past two seasons. Last year, he hit .381 and led the county with 35 stolen bases. He also saw limited time as a pitcher, posting a 1-2 record.

Last year, as a junior, he earned first-team All-County honors as a quarterback by throwing for 1,551 yards and 10 touchdowns for the second-best offense in the state.

The Gators have five games left in the regular season and are closer to a spot in the Class 5A playoffs by starting the season 2-0 in Region 2-5A.

Last season, Henry led the Gators to a 10-4 record and a spot in the North State championship game, where they lost to eventual state champion Starkville.

“I’ve always said, from my days as a recruiter at Alcorn, that he is a blue-chipper at football, too,” Stevens said. “If I was a college coach, I would be sad that I don’t have a shot at him anymore. He’s one of the few athletes I have come across in the past 10 or 15 years that could play two sports on the next level.

“It’s hard to do. It’s demanding and takes so much concentration. I’d love to see him in a Sugar Bowl or a Super Bowl, because I really feel like he has that type of potential.”

Henry said he doesn’t plan on trying to pursue football with Ole Miss, although he said with a smile that he will never rule out anything. Seth Smith and Michael Spurlock, both former high school quarterbacks, play both football and baseball for the Rebels.

Henry also doesn’t have plans to rekindle his basketball career.

He played for the Gators’ basketball team two years, but because of the overlap between basketball and baseball seasons, he stopped playing after his sophomore year.

“He’ll do anything to win,” Stevens said. “A lot of athletes are all about me, me, me, but Justin is one that doesn’t care as long as his team wins. That’s what separates the great ones from the rest.”

It was one play on the basketball court, though, that encompassed his toughness and drive to win.

Trailing by double digits late in the game on the road at Columbus in the playoffs, Henry chased a loose ball, diving over the scorer’s table head first trying to save the errant pass.

Lost in the shuffle of his athletic exploits at Vicksburg High is the fact that he is an accomplished tennis player as well, but gave up that sport even before leaving basketball.

“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Vicksburg High baseball coach Jamie Creel said.

“Underline, bottom line with quotation marks.”

In the past four years, six Warren County players have signed with Division I schools. Shea Douglas played at Southern Miss for three seasons before signing a professional baseball contract. Robby Goodson (Mississippi State), Taylor Tankersley (Alabama), Kevin Coker (Southern Miss), Pettway and Mims all followed Douglas, the first player in nearly 20 years to sign with a Divison I team.