VHS’ run good sign for future|[02/08/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2008

The Vicksburg Gators have come a very long way in a short time.

Five years ago, the boys’ soccer program was middle of the road at best. Overshadowed by the school’s more successful girls’ team and often outplayed by crosstown rival Warren Central, the Gators were rarely a threat to make any noise in the playoffs — when they even made it that far.

Fast-forward to 2008, though, and Vicksburg is knocking on the door of elite status. It has reached the state semifinals three times in four seasons with several different groups of players. Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to three-time defending state champion Pearl in the Class 4A semis brought an end to this season, but also a great deal of optimism for the next.

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“Our last 10 games, we played 10 times better and turned the season around. Nobody expected us to play for the North State title,” said VHS coach Jason Bennett, whose team finished with a 10-14 record. “It’s great that we could end with a positive. You can’t get much more positive than one game from a state championship.”

Vicksburg floundered for the first half of the season, but got its act together after the Christmas break. They went 5-3 in the last eight games. The surge didn’t get the Gators over .500 — even if they had won the state title, they would have been one game below — but did leave them as one of the last four teams standing in Class 4A.

Only two seniors, Angelo Toole-Carriere and Reed Rodgers, are on the roster. Toole-Carriere was a solid defender who started all but two games, but Rodgers missed the last two months of the season with a broken shinbone.

One of the biggest obstacles for the Gators next season is a familiar one.

From 2005-07, VHS ran into mighty Clinton each season in the playoffs. Clinton won each time, including in the 2005 Class 5A championship game. VHS dropped to Class 4A before this season, but still had to challenge a perennial juggernaut — Pearl, which advanced to its eighth straight state championship game by beating the Gators.

Pearl beat Vicksburg three times this season, all shutouts. By the end of Wednesday’s game they had also gained a lot of respect for the Gators. A half-dozen Pearl players walked up to VHS keeper Bowen Woodson to personally shake his hand after the game. Woodson stopped 17 of the 23 shots he faced.

And Andrew Wade, who scored one of Pearl’s goals, said he expects the two teams to be in the hunt for the 4A title again next season.

“If they stay in 4A, and I think they will, it’s going to be a huge rivalry. I see this as the North State championship game next year,” Wade said.