Gators beat Ridgeland to clinch a spot in Class 6A playoffs

Published 1:42 am Friday, November 3, 2023

The Vicksburg Gators’ road to the playoffs was probably a lot harder than it needed to be, and the final leg of the journey was no exception.
In the end, however, they arrived safely at their destination and that’s all that really matters.

Tyler Henderson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and the Gators scored twice in a 100-second span in the third quarter to beat Ridgeland 20-7 on Thursday and secure a berth in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs.

The Gators won on a night in which they failed to score on three trips inside the red zone and had another possession end in a fumble just outside it.

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“We left too much on the grass. The score was supposed to be 80-0. We’ve just got to keep going,” Vicksburg coach Christopher Lacey said. “We made absolutely too many mistakes. We’ve just got to keep playing. If we can’t cut down on that we’re going to have a big issue, so we’ve just got to keep going.”

Vicksburg (7-3, 3-2 MHSAA Region 2-6A) won its third game in a row and earned the No. 3 seed from Region 2-6A. It will go on the road to play Grenada (8-3) in the first round on Nov. 10.

Ridgeland (3-7, 1-4) could have gotten into the playoffs with a win, but instead was eliminated.

The Titans used an 18-play, nine-minute drive in the second quarter to score on quarterback Kameron Wallace’s 1-yard sneak. That gave them a 7-6 lead at halftime, but they fumbled twice and had another possession end on downs inside the red zone.

“We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot all year long and we’ve got to figure it out,” said Ridgeland coach Todd McDaniel, who was Vicksburg’s head coach from 2020-22. “We’ve got a young offense and a young defense with a few older guys here and there. We probably lead the state in getting to the 5-yard line and the red zone and not scoring. That’s some things we’ve got to figure out.”

Vicksburg has a few things to sort out as well. Its defense was solid all night, and special teams provided the first points on Henderson’s 90-yard kickoff return to start the game, but the offense only totaled 243 yards.

The Gators’ first offensive possession ended in a missed field goal, after they had first-and-goal at the 7-yard line. Two penalties, including one that negated a touchdown pass, backed them up.

Another drive ended in a fumble at the 22-yard line and a third resulted in no points when time ran out on the first half with the ball at the 18. A fourth-quarter drive that could have put the game away also stalled at the 10-yard line and ended with a turnover on downs.

“When you get in the red zone two or three times, you’ve got to score touchdowns and we failed to score those touchdowns,” Lacey said. “Championship teams have got to score, and we didn’t do championship stuff in those situations. That’s what I’m focused on. My mind is on Oxford. I want to win a state championship. That’s our goal every year, and we’ve got to lock in and do it.”

The one time the Gators did find the end zone on offense, it was the first of two quick touchdowns that gave them the lead and all of the momentum.

Malik Montgomery finished an eight-play, 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 4:09 left in the third quarter.

On Ridgeland’s next series, Marquavion Cuff fumbled on a third-and-1 carry. Defensive end Tyler Carter scooped it up for the Gators and took it 42 yards to the end zone. Ronnie Alexander threw a two-point conversion pass to Montgomery for a 20-7 lead.

“Coach called a blitz and they missed a handoff. I saw it on the ground and I picked it up and scored. It feels good. First one ever in my life. Sometimes it’s too wide open and you start kicking it and stuff. But once you get it and scoop it right, it feels good,” Carter said. “When that happened it was a close game. We needed that play to get the momentum going.”

Ridgeland’s last chance to get back in it came in the fourth quarter. A long completion and a pass interference penalty quickly moved the ball from the Ridgeland 10 to the Vicksburg 27 with about 6 1/2 minutes left.

The Titans eventually got to the 5-yard line before stalling. Three runs lost a total of five yards, and Wallace was sacked by Dennis Battle at the 15 to end the threat with four minutes left.

The Gators picked up one first down on the ensuing drive, with Montgomery bursting for nine yards on third-and-5, and were able to run out the clock.

Montgomery finished with 99 of the Gators’ 197 rushing yards.

“We’re hitting it downhill. We’ve just got to finish it. We’re not pulling off those finishes, and that’s what’s driving me up a creek,” Lacey said. “I’ve just got to make sure that’s what we do.”

MHSAA Class 6A playoffs
First round – Nov. 10
Vicksburg at Grenada
Saltillo at Warren Central
Callaway at South Panola
Center Hill at Neshoba Central
Hancock at West Jones
Terry at George County
Forest Hill at Picayune
Pascagoula at Hattiesburg

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 140-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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