1980 Gators are gone, but not forgotten

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2003

The battles with Callaway

By the halfway point of the 1979-80 season, it was quickly becoming clear that the top two teams in the state were Vicksburg and Callaway.

The Chargers, led by explosive scorer Eddie Archie, were one of the few teams that could match up with the Gators.

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“That was a big rivalry,” Billups said. “Eddie Archie and Michael Phelps going at each other. They weren’t checking each other, but they were going at each other point-for-point.”

Phelps, meanwhile, continued to pour in points and the Gators continued to pile up the wins and build excitement in Warren County.

The team rolled through the district tournaments, with the only hiccup coming against Warren Central in the Sub-District 6AA tournament. The 11-15 Vikings gave VHS all it could handle, taking the Gators to the wire before Phelps scored four straight points and White hit a free throw to ice a 55-53 win.

The Gators crushed Provine and Forest Hill in the next two games to win the tournament and roll their record to 29-4.

“Every time we went, it was standing-room only. People just loved to see that team from Vicksburg, because we were well-coached, well-disciplined, and were doing what we loved to do,” Phelps said.

Everything was clicking for the Gators, who were getting dominant performances from Phelps every night and solid efforts from the other four starters. Jimmy Williams and Dennis Williams each averaged more than 10 points per game for the season, and Harris and Haywood Bracey were double-figure threats on any night.

Reserves Michael White, Herman Ross and Tony Morris also played a huge role, giving key performances in several tournament games when the starters struggled.

“We had a good bunch that helped out a whole lot. Guys that knew their role and were ready to step in when they needed to,” Phelps said of the Gators’ bench.

“A couple of those guys that were on the bench could have been starters.”

None of the reserves made waves about more playing time or touches, though. Billups said each player knew his role on the team, and executed it to perfection.

“They knew who the go-to man was … We knew who to get the ball to when we wanted to score,” Billups said.

It seemed that nothing could stop the Gator machine, until old nemesis Callaway reared its ugly head.

Vicksburg had blown out the Chargers to win both the Overall Big 8 and district tournaments, but the fourth meeting didn’t go as smoothly.

The teams played a classic in the South State title game in Jackson, with Callaway coming out on top. Archie hit a basket with 15 seconds to play to give the Chargers an 80-78 win and even the season series at two games apiece. It was the last of Archie’s 38 points on the night.

“I can still see it,” Phelps said. “I remember standing right under the basket, waiting for the rebound, and seeing it drop right through the net.”

The rubber match came in the state tournament. Vicksburg dispatched Tupelo and Starkville with ease, while Callaway had a bye in the first round and beat Oxford in the semifinals to advance to the Class AA championship game.

The mood in the Mississippi Coliseum was intense as the top two teams met for the last time to settle, once and for all-time, who was best. One longtime Vicksburg High teacher recalled eight buses making the trip to Jackson, each one crammed with Gator supporters.

“It was a long tunnel. I thought we were going to get lost coming out on that court, there were so many people there to cheer us on,” Phelps said with a laugh.

The highly-anticipated contest didn’t quite live up to its billing.

Vicksburg led 33-29 at halftime, then used a stall offense to slow down the Chargers and build a 12-point lead midway through the third quarter. Callaway cut it to 56-51 with four minutes to play, but Phelps scored six straight points to put the game away. The Gators went on to win 70-58.

Phelps scored 29 points to lead the Gators, and Archie countered with 23. Jimmy Williams added 15 as the Gators won the first state championship in school history.

“We found a solution to how to beat those guys, and once we found the solution we had confidence that we could beat those guys,” Phelps said. “When they beat us, it was by one or two points. When we beat them, it was by seven or 10 points.”

Vicksburg went on to win the overall tournament the next week, beating Class A champion Monticello 94-82, and Class BB champion South Leake 78-61, to finish the season with a 40-5 record. But the overall state championship was almost an afterthought after the battles with Callaway.

“Probably that night for the AA (was bigger) because that overall, there really wasn’t that much competition,” Harris said. “That overall was just icing on the cake.”

Return to the Big House

It has taken nearly a quarter of a century for another group of Gators to get as close to a championship as the 1980 squad. The only other team to get near the accomplishments of that group was the 1996 Gators, who lost in the state semifinals.

While the 2003 Vicksburg High basketball team builds its own legend, those who were around for the 1980 run speak reverently of a former champion that has moved on in life, but never forgotten.

“People still remember that team back then. I still hear today about that 1980 team and what we accomplished,” said Phelps, who went on to star at Alcorn State and played for several years in the NBA. “To look back on it, I say man, wow!’ You look back on it now and say we really did something great back then.”

Phelps and Harris both planned to be at tonight’s game to cheer on the Gators. Both said they would have mixed emotions should Vicksburg beat Starkville, but added that the last 23 years of memories have been wonderful.

“It’s special to know we did something nobody had done before or has done since. We just had tremendous support from the community, the teachers, the parents, everybody,” Harris said. “People from Vicksburg haven’t forgotten. Every time I go back somebody mentions it.”