FORTVILLE — No excuses.
Since head coach Doug Armstrong took over at Mt. Vernon five years ago, the Marauders’ gridiron culture has been defined by nothing less.
No lollygagging allowed. Don’t go looking for the complaint box, it doesn’t exist; nor will one ever find a home with the old gold, white and black.
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“That’s our mindset. We’ve had that mindset for quite a few years,” said Armstrong, who is 35-18 at Mt. Vernon and owns 87-career wins overall. “Not everything goes your way. You just have to find ways to get things done.”
The Marauders have lived up to their mantra the past eight weeks, powering to a 4-4 record and a 3-2 mark in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.
On paper, the result might not overwhelm many, but when taking into account the Marauders’ adversities, its speaks loudly.
Stricken by injuries to key senior personnel throughout the year, and hit by another one last week against Shelbyville when senior quarterback Jimmy Campbell left the game with a fractured ankle, the Marauders refuse to step back.
“In total conference record since 2011, we’re the second best team behind New Palestine,” Armstrong said. “That shows that we consistently have winning seasons, and these guys want to do more. They can do more.”
Last week, Mt. Vernon narrowly lost to Shelbyville 30-29, the team’s second loss by three points or less this season. Since 2008, the program hasn’t endured a losing record, and despite Campbell’s ill-timed injury there’s little reason to believe the winning trend will stop.
“That’s the first goal right now, to get to 5-4 and then keep going from there,” junior running back and linebacker Nathan Siefert said. “If we can put ourselves in position and play for a sectional championship and go 8-4, that’s an awesome season. Right now, it’s just a mediocre season, but we can turn it into a a great season. It’s up to us.”
To do that, Armstrong and the Marauders are turning to “Plan B,” in Josh Coons, a 6-foot-2 sophomore quarterback inserted into the lineup with Campbell sidelined until at least regional week.
Coons stepped right in last Friday, orchestrating two fourth-quarter touchdown drives along with Siefert and junior Mitch McCarthy eating up yardage out of the backfield. Coons scored a go-ahead touchdown on a 21-yard run with 3 minutes and 28 seconds left in the game, flashing some of his unrealized potential.
As a freshman, he led the team to a .500 record. This year, he’s quarterbacked the junior varsity team and gained varsity minutes at wide receiver and at outside linebacker.
The expectations for Coons, said senior Juwann Nelson, are on par with the Marauders’ already steadfast solution to any bad break.
“It’s next man up,” remarked Nelson, who has been sidelined six games this season due to a stress fracture in his right fibula. “It’s definitely frustrating, the injuries, but I believe in all of my teammates, and I definitely believe in Josh Coons. I know that he’ll be able to do it, and I already know he’ll play good enough for us to win. We’ll get Jimmy back when he’s ready. Until then, it’s next man up.”
To Nelson those words aren’t just lip service with his return date set for the first week of sectional.
Injured in the Marauders’ season-opener at home against Hamilton Heights on Aug. 21, the senior returned four weeks later only to go back down. At the same time, Mt. Vernon lost senior halfback and defensive back Jordan House for the season due to injury.
The blows all but erased the Marauders light senior presence, which is now trimmed to two players in linemen Blake Slunaker and Jackson Montgomery.
On offense, Mt. Vernon starts eight juniors and two sophomores. The team’s ball-hawking defense is driven by a group of six juniors and four sophomores. Campbell gave the Marauders a third senior, playing limited snaps on defense in the secondary.
Though youthful, the learning curve has been throttled up, and the future has responded in the present.
“They’re a really good group of kids and are really talented,” Slunaker said. “We’ve been teaching these younger guys about our culture and how we do things around here, so it’s been a challenge, but they just go out and play hard. They learn like sponges.”
With only one regular-season game remaining at home against Yorktown at 7:30 p.m. Friday and a sectional meeting with Jay County (4-4) two weeks away, the lessons will continue along with the Marauders desire to finish strong.
“We try not to use our youth as an excuse because it’s not. This late in the season, the sophomores have been playing the entire year, so basically, they’re not sophomores anymore. They have experience. We just want to keep playing as hard as we can, and hopefully, we can get far … keep playing for Jimmy.”