Henry breaks out with productive SEC Tournament|[5/31/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2005

HOOVER, Ala. – Which Warren County native hit nearly .400 this season, helped Ole Miss to a piece of the SEC West title, and had a breakout performance in the Southeastern Conference Tournament?

The obvious answer would be Brian Pettway, the former Warren Central slugger who led the SEC with a .400 batting average and won the Ferriss Trophy as the top player in Mississippi. But the real answer might surprise even the most diehard Ole Miss fan.

Justin Henry, a former Vicksburg High star, was the one quietly keying the Rebels’ run to the SEC title game last weekend. He hit .389 in six tournament games, ranking among the leaders in hits and batting average, and was selected to the all-tournament team as a designated hitter.

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“It was just getting an opportunity to play, and I was glad to put a few hits together,” Henry said. “I was the first pinch-hitter most of the year and was able to get a chance. I was swinging the bat pretty well and finally able to get some starts.”

Henry has come on strong toward the end of the season. A redshirt freshman, he spent most of the spring as a backup behind players like Pettway, Stephen Head and senior Cooper Osteen.

Henry has played in 51 of Ole Miss’ 62 games, starting just 15. He saw time at first base, designated hitter, left field and second base.

A quick glance at Ole Miss’ stat sheet showed Henry’s value, though. He was second on the team in average behind Pettway, at .389, and had 37 hits in just 95 at-bats. Only six of those hits went for extra bases – including one inside-the-park home run – showing Henry’s ability to be a table-setter at the top of the lineup.

Henry also had nine multiple-hit games this season and carried a seven-game hitting streak into Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game against Mississippi State. The streak was snapped in the 4-1 loss when he grounded out in the ninth inning in his only at-bat. Henry had entered in the seventh inning as a defensive replacement.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco praised Henry as a player who was willing to do the little things to help the Rebels win.

“It’s certainly selfless of him, but it’s somebody we needed. Somebody who can play first base, somebody who can pinch-run, and that’s not even saying anything about his offense,” Bianco said.

In the tournament, Henry did kick his offense up a notch.

Heading into the championship game, he was tied for second among all players with seven hits in the tournament. His .438 average heading into the final was fourth among players with at least 10 at-bats, and he helped the Rebels come out of the loser’s bracket by going 5-for-7 with two RBIs and three runs scored in two wins over Florida on Saturday.

“A great (SEC) tournament, but he’s been great all year,” Bianco said.

Most of Henry’s playing time came as the designated hitter this season, but he figures to see more time in the field in 2006. Osteen is graduating, while Head and Pettway should be selected in the major league draft. That would leave it to Henry and a slew of young, talented Rebels to carry on the growing tradition started by the current group of upperclassmen.

Ole Miss was selected to host an NCAA regional for the second straight year, and the 2005 team set a school record with 44 wins. The win total was also the most in the SEC this season.

“We finally got over the hump this year, and we’re playing well down the stretch and heading into this regional,” Henry said.

Ole Miss (44-18) will open the regional against Maine (34-17) on Friday, and could face in-state rival and No. 2 seed Southern Miss later in the weekend.

Henry said the loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament was hard to stomach, but added that the Rebels have already put it behind them.

“By the time we got back to Oxford we were over it,” Henry said. “We know the next couple of weeks are what we play for.”