End of the lineVicksburg players despondent after suspensions end season

Published 11:11 am Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Vicksburg High’s football players milled around their fieldhouse Tuesday afternoon, awaiting word on whether they’d head to practice or go home.

Most talked quietly, a few joked around with each other.

Less than an hour later, they gathered their equipment from the locker room and lined up to turn it in to the team’s coaches. Two weeks from the official end of the season, theirs was over.

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More than 40 Vicksburg players were suspended for either one or two games Tuesday by the Mississippi High School Activities Association for their involvement in an altercation in Friday’s game against Murrah. The large number of suspensions led to the decision by Vicksburg Warren School District officials to forfeit the Gators’ two remaining games this season, against Warren Central and Clinton.

“It’s heartbreaking, to tell you the truth. To finish our season like this, especially, and me being a senior. It’s heartbreaking for me not to finish my season,” said Johnathan Tenner, a senior defensive back and quarterback. “I especially wanted to play Warren Central because that’s our rival across town.”

Murrah had about a dozen players suspended for one game for leaving the bench, and three or four more suspended two games for fighting. MHSAA executive director Don Hinton said more suspensions are possible, and did not have an exact number for either school.

In addition, both Vicksburg’s and Murrah’s football teams were ruled ineligible for the playoffs, fined $500 and put on probation through the 2013-14 school year. Player suspensions will not carry over to next season.

Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Swinford said none of the Vicksburg High players will face additional discipline.

She said, however, she wants the team to perform a community service project.

The school district also will take a financial hit. Swinford said the district will pay a $2,500 fee to Clinton for breaking its game contract.

The loss of the gate from the Vicksburg-Warren Central game will hurt more. Tickets are $6 and $7 each, so losing out on what could be a crowd of at least a thousand people, plus concessions, easily could cost the school district about $10,000.

For the Gators, who had been eliminated from playoff contention, missing the chance to beat Warren Central for the sixth consecutive season seemed to sting the most. It’s the first time since 1980 that the county rivals will not play each other.

Warren Central — as well as Clinton next week — will receive a forfeit victory. Murrah’s 57-42 win over Vicksburg last week also will stand. Vicksburg officially finished the season with a 1-10 record.

Murrah plans to play its last two games of the season, against Jim Hill and Northwest Rankin.

“I know everybody else didn’t want to end the season like this. I know everybody else wanted to play Warren Central, too. We were practicing until we found out we had to cancel the rest of our season,” Tenner said.

Tenner and linebacker Shaquan James are among 15 seniors who played their last game against Murrah. James knew forfeiting the last two games of the season were a possibility, but having it actually happen was tough to take.

“Warren Central was our senior night. That meant a lot to me. It’s the last senior thing you do,” James said, before saying of his younger teammates, “I wish them good luck next season, and hopefully everything will be better for them.”

Because the fight occurred along Vicksburg’s sideline, more of its players were involved and it received more suspensions than Murrah. Any Vicksburg player who left the bench area that ends at the 25-yard line was suspended by the MHSAA.

Swinford said Tuesday that “a bare minimum” of players from the 57-man roster avoided suspensions.

“We haven’t counted them yet, but I will tell you that it was a bare minimum that remained in that box. It was less than 10 players in that box,” Swinford said.

Tenner felt the punishment the Gators received was fair.

“I think it is,” he said. “It was a rule that our team couldn’t clear the bench, that 11 players on the field had to stay on the field. Yeah, I think it was a fair punishment.”

The Gators will now head into the offseason trying to recover from one of the lowest points in the program’s history. Head coach Tavares Johnson Sr. was still recovering Tuesday from a head injury he received while trying to break up the fight.

In addressing the situation with his team, Johnson talked about a more metaphorical black eye for his program — the negative image that will follow them around next season. During the probationary period that includes summer 7-on-7 games, preseason and spring jamborees and scrimmages, as well as the 2013 regular season, any more incidents will bring the full wrath of the MHSAA down upon the Gators.

“We’ve got to keep behaving everywhere we go now, because they’re looking at us every step we make,” sophomore receiver Edward Davis said.

For the next two weeks, the Gators will go through the motions. The players must still report to the fieldhouse for practice each day. They’re allowed to work out on the field, but it’s more likely they’ll get an early start on their offseason conditioning program.

A team barbecue on Thursday will proceed as scheduled — now as a season wrapup party rather than a pep rally for the Warren Central game, as was originally intended.

And on Friday night, Memorial Stadium will be dark and silent. No bands, no crowds, no football. It’s a hard life lesson, Johnson said, but one his team has little choice but to endure.

“Life deals you challenges. There are consequences to everything that happens, both good and bad. We made a mistake as a football team, therefore, we’ve got to live with the consequences,” Johnson said. “The kids know that they made a mistake. They’re very regretful. They wish they could take it back, but there are consequences. That’s a mistake that we made as a football team. We’re going to learn from it, and we’re going to move forward.”