Gators find groove at right time|[02/04/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 4, 2008

Vicksburg High looked nothing like a playoff team in the first half of this season. Blowout losses and little offense were the norm rather than the exception.

Madison Central drilled them twice early by 6-0 and 6-1 scores. Northwest Rankin blanked them at Memorial Stadium 3-0, and Clinton hammered them 6-0 right after Thanksgiving.

Yet in the playoffs, the Gators are back to their old ways under coach Jason Bennett. On Saturday they knocked off a second divisional champion in Pontotoc, 1-0 at Memorial Stadium in a Class 4A second-round playoff contest. The win sends the Gators on to a rematch at division rival Pearl on Tuesday. The Pirates, the three-time defending Class 4A champions, own a pair of 3-0 decisions over the Gators this season.

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But according to Gator mid-fielder Patrick Parker, the last meeting, on Jan. 9 in Pearl, may have served as the team’s wakeup call.

“We were pretty upset after the last loss to Pearl back in January at their place. It was 3-0 like the first meeting, but we felt we could’ve done better,” Parker said. “That following Monday, everything was different. Our practices started getting more serious and we’ve played better since.”

Things began to change the next weekend when Vicksburg played well in the Pearl Tournament, beating a good Gautier club 1-0. They followed that with shootout losses to Ocean Springs and Harrison Central.

“When we beat Gautier, that kind of turned some things around for us,” Bennett said. “I feel Gautier was a team that was strong enough to come out of the south.”

The Gators, though, still needed to reel off three straight division wins just to make the playoffs. They did so in strong fashion, beating Ridgeland 2-0 in a key match at Memorial Stadium to secure a fourth straight playoff bid under Bennett.

“We experimented a lot earlier in the season, trying to get people in the right spots,” VHS senior goal keeper Bowen Woodson said. “We seemed to have found the right mix.”

One of the combinations that has worked is using the speed of sophomore Perry Tolliver and freshman Anthony Haden to attack the flanks of the opponent’s defense.

“Those two have worked well together. They’ve been able to give us something on the outside. And that makes it easier for Patrick to work. We run our offense through Patrick,” Bennett said.

That worked Saturday against Pontotoc as Parker scored the game’s only goal on a 28-yard strike with eight minutes left in the first half.

The win over Pontotoc was the second straight playoff win for the Gators (10-11-2), who beat Caledonia 3-1 on the road in the first round. In four years with Bennett, VHS has compiled an 8-3 playoff record, including a trip to the Class 5A finals in 2005 and the North State final in 2006.

Bennett says the Gators’ difficult schedule helped them get ready for the playoffs.

“When you’re playing the level of talent like we do early in the year like Clinton, Northwest Rankin and Madison Central, it makes you better. Our level of play has gotten better because of it and now our talent level is just as good as those teams, now,” Bennett said.