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PLAYING WITH GIANTS: Vidalia prepares for district with stiff competition

Vidalia High School’s Demarco Brown and Julius Wilson defend Neville’s Junias Silas in a contest Friday night in Vidalia. Neville won the game 61-54. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Vidalia High School’s Demarco Brown and Julius Wilson defend Neville’s Junias Silas in a contest Friday night in Vidalia. Neville won the game 61-54. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

VIDALIA — In the midst of a climatic varsity girls’ finale between Vidalia and Buckeye, a group of tall, young men entered Vidalia’s gym wearing Under Armour warmups and beanies.

The group of 20 or so Neville players made their way to the visiting locker room before a matchup against the smaller Vidalia Vikings boys squad. Once the Tigers hit the floor, their athleticism was showcased in a 14-4 opening tip run, forcing Vidalia head coach Robert Sanders to call timeout.

Three-and-a-half quarters later, Neville escaped Vidalia’s gym with a 61-54 victory against the Vikings, Vidalia’s first regular season loss at home in two years. The LHSAA Class 3A Vikings made it a little more difficult than the Class 4A Tigers anticipated.

“It was a lot closer than it really should have been, but that’s a credit to Coach Sanders and Vidalia,” Neville head coach Phillip Craig said.

Earning respect from bigger schools is not why Sanders puts teams like Neville on the schedule. Instead, it’s the competition they offer, which he hopes will inspire improvement from his own squad before district begins this coming Friday against Caldwell Parish.

“We’ve found that better competition helps us in district and in the playoffs,” Sanders said. “These are the games that bring a lot of experience because you’ll see teams like this in the playoffs.”

The tactic, which Sanders started in 2008, has seemingly worked, with two of Sanders teams reaching the state championship finals since and the 2010 team winning the state championship.

The upperclassmen have grown aware as to why Sanders puts teams like Neville on the schedule.

“Believe it or not, this helps us out a lot,” said junior Julius Wilson after the loss. “We see what we’re in for when we play against big teams.”

Sanders’ Vikings aren’t the only team in the area that practices such a strategy. For instance, Adams County Christian School played Jackson Academy, an MAIS 3A powerhouse, on Jan. 2. ACCS lost 59-54, but competing with the elite of the MAIS gave ACCS a nice measuring stick at the time.

“You find out what you need to work on when you play a team like Jackson Academy,” said ACCS head coach Richy Spears after the game.

This Tuesday, Vidalia will travel across the river to take on MHSAA Class 5A Natchez High in a game that will attract many eyes in the area. It’s the last big test Sanders has laid out for his club before the games become increasingly more important.

“Hopefully, we will remember these games if we make the playoffs,” Sanders said.