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Examiner
  • Duo has Falcons flying high

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  • Anthony Winningham is the yin to J.J. Rivers' yang.
    The Van Horn High School football standouts complement each other like peanut butter and jelly or the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae.
    If you are a Falcon fan, you can't think of one without the other.
    And they should pose problems for Excelsior Springs in tonight's 7 p.m. Class 4 District 8 matchup at Independence All-School Stadium/Norm James Field on the William Chrisman High School campus, where Van Horn's dynamic duo will do their best to get the Falcons off to a successful postseason start after a 7-2 regular season.
    “They are two very special young men,” Van Horn coach Jeff Tolbert said. “When Denzel (Strong) graduated last year, we knew there would be a void at running back. We didn't know if J.J. was ready to step into his shoes – and I don't know if J.J. thought he was ready for that challenge before the season started.
    “We had a couple of conversations, and we were able to convince J.J. that if he worked hard this season, it would pay off for him and his teammates.”
    Rivers has responded with 19 touchdowns and 1,348 yards on 172 carries for an average of 7.8 yards per carry. Winningham has thrown for eight touchdowns and run for seven more.
    “We knew what we had with Tony,” said Tolbert, the only head football coach the Falcons have had since joining the Independence School District six years ago. “He does such a wonderful job running the option. Those two guys really do a nice job complementing each other in the backfield.”
    And when they aren't complementing each other in the backfield, they are complimenting Tolbert and their offensive line.
    “Our line is so talented,” Rivers said enthusiasically, “and our coaches are amazing. Our coaches put us in a position to succeed, and our line opens holes that any back could run through. Tony does a great job running the offense, and we kind of have this sixth sense where I just know when the ball is coming my way.”
    That's what comes from hours and hours of repetitive practice sessions that began in the summer.
    “We knew this season could be special,” said Winningham, who came to Van Horn as a sophomore after attending Grandview High School his freshman year. “That's why we all worked so hard. We worked in the weight room, we worked as a team so we would know what to expect in any game situation, and J.J. and I worked a lot together because we wanted the option to be successful this season.”
    Page 2 of 2 - The Falcons take that 7-2 mark into tonight's playoff game, and activities director Chris Corrie said this team is on the verge of something special.
    “Coach Tolbert and I have been here all six years that Van Horn has been a part of the Independence public school system, and what he's done with this program is nothing short of amazing,” Corrie said. “You can see by talking with J.J. and Tony how special our players are, and our coaches have built a foundation where this program could have success for years to come.
    “We're all excited to see what happens when we play Excelsior Springs because they are a very good team and Coach and his players know they have to play Van Horn football to get a big win.”
    Rivers has been a part of Van Horn since his freshman year, but he admits he had some hesitation at first about becoming a Falcon.
    “I heard horror stories about the school, but they all came before Van Horn became a part of Independence (School District),” Rivers said. “Now I can't imagine what it would have been like if I had been at any other school. This is my home and my teammates are my family.
    “I didn't know what this season would be like for me, because Denzel left some huge shoes to fill. I didn't know if I was the player to fill his shoes. Coach and I had a lot of talks, and he had a lot more faith in me than I did.
    “So did my quarterback. Now, I have so much faith in myself, my line – I know when Tony is going to carry the ball himself, or pitch it to me. We're on the same wavelength. It's like we think together. It's a lot of fun out there on the football field.”
    Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC

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