Gators take on West Point for trip to Class 5A championship game

Published 8:00 am Thursday, November 24, 2022

When they traveled to West Point for a playoff game last season, coach Todd McDaniel admits his Vicksburg Gators were overwhelmed by the big stage — and maybe with good reason.

It was the first time the team had been that far in the playoffs in more than a decade. They were playing one of Mississippi’s most dominant programs, which made its sixth straight appearance in the MHSAA Class 5A title game a couple of weeks later.

The result, a 42-6 rout by West Point that wasn’t even that close, was predictable. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, McDaniel said, but it was a necessary one the Gators had to endure to push them to the next level.

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“It gave them the opportunity to play a top-flight program. A program that’s used to winning state championships. And to be able to see the effort those kids put in on every single play. That’s something they hadn’t seen before,” McDaniel said. “When you get the opportunity to see it, feel it and touch it, and then you go back and think about it, you say if we wouldn’t have been so star struck it could’ve been a better football game. It was part of the process. It was something that had to happen. Without that, we probably wouldn’t be here right now.”

Where they are right now is staring down a rematch with West Point with a huge prize on the line. Vicksburg (10-2) will host the Green Wave (10-2) in the Class 5A semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.

It’s Vicksburg’s first trip to the semifinals since 2001. And this new experience, they said, is one they’re more than ready for.

“(Last season) helped us a lot. Last year was our first time being there and we really didn’t know what to do with the atmosphere. Now they’ve got to come to The Swamp,” defensive lineman Demarcus Johnson said.

West Point, with its 11 state championships in 40 years, is one of Mississippi’s most accomplished high school football programs. Vicksburg is trying to push its way into the upper echelon with a landmark victory Friday night.

Vicksburg won 11 games in the three seasons before McDaniel arrived in 2020, and went 4-8 his first season. They improved to 7-5 in 2021 — including the lopsided playoff loss to West Point — and this year reached 10 wins for the first time since 2001.

“It wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this would happen. We spoke a lot of times about it and a lot of people probably thought I was crazy,” McDaniel said. “This staff and these kids have really come together. We knew that if we put in the work and continued to pray about it, and the kids bought in, and we’re here now. We’re happy to be here, but we want to take it farther.”

They still need one more win — one very difficult win — to do that and advance to the Class 5A championship game Dec. 2 in Hattiesburg.

West Point has ripped off 10 consecutive victories since losing its first two games of the season to fellow state powers Louisville and Starkville. It allowed a total of 34 points in its last six regular-season games and is every bit the dominant program it has always been.

“They’re going to be the top dog until somebody can knock them off. We’re going to do our best to do that on Friday,” McDaniel said. “I believe that if we play our A-game we can play with anybody in the state of Mississippi.”

The Gators earned home field advantage for this game by winning the Region 2-5A championship — the program’s first region title since 1990 — and the MHSAA’s method of rotating the semifinal sites among Region 1-5A and 2-5A.

It’s the latest scheduling quirk that has benefited the Gators this season. Two of their toughest region games, as well as all three playoff games, wound up being at Memorial Stadium. They are 7-0 at home this season, and McDaniel was asking for plenty of community support to make playing on their home field a true advantage for the Gators in their biggest game yet.

“Being able to be in the confines of your own home and being surrounded by your fans helps. If you’re a Gator or you’re a Viking, come out and support us. We’re all together right now,” McDaniel said. “We want it to be loud. We don’t want them to be able to hear when they have the ball. We want this stadium and these hills full. It’s the only game in town. Come watch some football the day after Thanksgiving.”

WEST POINT AT VICKSBURG
• MHSAA Class 5A semifinals
• Friday, 7 p.m.
• Radio: 107.7 FM
• Tickets are $12 for reserved seating and $10 for general admission, and are available via GoFan.co

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 139-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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