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WHEN HENLEY RUNS, FOES CAN'T COUNTER

South Park's Harvard Cup championship is two minutes old when James Henley Jr. bolts to the Sparks' bench and grabs one of the game balls. He starts sprinting toward the stands, then he pulls up and heaves a pass some 40 yards toward a cluster of fans that includes his parents, James and Patrina.

It's a perfect spiral. It's right on target. And once more you had to wonder: Is there anything this kid can't do on the football field?

Henley, a tailback/linebacker, was a player without compare Thursday during the 99th renewal of the Harvard Cup in All High Stadium. He tormented Hutch-Tech with his power bursts through the interior. He confounded them with his quick surges to the outside. He kept running and running until he had pounded away the snow and skipped through the mud for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

But that was only half his day's work. Henley was also the game's dominant defensive player, dropping one Engineer after another with emphatic, textbook tackles and producing a late interception that locked up South Park's 26-14 victory over the league's defending champions.

All Patrina Henley knew of her son the football player had been gleaned off the game tapes that he'd bring home. She had told him before the season that she'd wait until the championship game before watching him in person, which amounted to either a prescient promise or a motivational carrot.

"That made me want to work that much harder for it," Henley said. "That's why I threw the ball to my father, to give it to her."

Henley, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior, is as good a skill player as the Harvard Cup Series has seen in a long time. Last season, as a sophomore, he was named one of the league's top offensive players. He surely would have surpassed 1,500 yards rushing this season were it not for an ankle injury that cost him two games and chunks of two others. He played in South Park's semifinal victory over Burgard 11 days earlier, but he was far from 100 percent. Whether the Sparks could solve Hutch-Tech's suffocating defense figured to hinge on the recovery of Henley's ankle.

The Engineers were exceedingly familiar with the capabilities of a healthy Henley. They rarely got a handle on him earlier in the season during a 36-6 South Park victory that included two Henley touchdown runs, one of them 78 yards.

Hutch-Tech had reason to believe it had patched many a hole since that Oct. 5 encounter. The Engineers entered the game riding a string of six straight shutouts. Defense was the name of their game, at least until Henley crossed their paths once again.

"He's a wonderful football player, a wonderful runner," Hutch-Tech coach Bill Boyle said. "And he got us."

Every South Park player benefits from Henley's presence. Justin Bartlomiejczak romped 52 yards on a counter play after the Engineers stacked the right side in anticipation of a Henley plunge. Quarterback Jason Truman found Claude Scott alone for a 15-yard touchdown pass after the Engineers, ever wary, flooded the box.

"He is so dynamic of a player that you have to respect him if he has the ball," South Park coach Ken Pope said. "If you don't, he's going to break it on you. So you have to shift the defense over to him, and that allows us to run counters and misdirections off that. And that's been our success all year. Henley gets a couple of quick runs, and then we run a counter. And then the team overshifts to stop the counter, and we come back to Henley with the power."

"I knew they were going to key on me in this game," Henley said. "That's all their coach kept talking about in the paper and stuff. And I knew they were going to bite as soon as we gave a counter because we kept running the 46 Trap all day."

Pope has been around a number of excellent athletes in his day, dating to when he played for Hutch-Tech's 1967 Harvard Cup title team.

"As far as football players, he's probably the best football player I've been around," Pope said. "He's phenomenal. When he comes to the sidelines -- and he's not a vocal guy -- he looks at you, and it's, 'I want the ball.'

"And he gets the ball. No questions asked."

e-mail: rdicesare@buffnews.com

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