FORTVILLE — The crowd grew anxious while Steve Williams paced the sidelines — admittedly nervous. Even the students in the press box began to fidget.
It had been more than 50 minutes and Mt. Vernon still hadn’t scored?
The Marauders didn’t panic Monday, though. With an outright Hoosier Heritage Conference title on the line, Mt. Vernon flipped its offensive switch and delivered when it mattered the most.
The Marauders, who are averaging five goals per game this season, turned a 1-0 deficit against Pendleton Heights into a 3-1 win, locking up the program’s second HHC championship in school history.
But Mt. Vernon (12-3, 7-0 HHC) is far from content.
Williams, who became the only head coach at the school to win a conference championship for both the boys and girls teams, has his squad set on another goal — a second straight sectional title.
The win on Monday capped a great regular-season run with the Marauders only other HHC title coming in 2013 (6-0) before New Castle joined the conference.
“We have found great kids at every class level,” Williams said. “We have great senior leadership, but honestly these kids want to win and will sacrifice personal goals for the team’s success.
“We are in the business of fielding a soccer team, but we also know that giving these kids life lessons is important. Ultimately we want to produce great kids who will succeed off the field. I am very proud of this accomplishment. It certainly validates our efforts, but I also believe it is because I surround myself with great people.”
Despite being inexperienced on paper, the Marauders, who have nine underclassmen, have played like anything but. A quick look at their statistics shows balance and power. Twelve players have scored at least one goal and nine more have tallied an assist. The team averages 4.2 assists per match.
However, it all starts with sophomore Cleo Mills.
Mills scored two goals in the second half to lead Mt. Vernon’s come-from-behind charge against Pendleton Heights, which finished second in conference play. She scored two goals within two minutes in the second half to catapult her team to a lead it would never surrender.
“(Pendleton Heights) was a tough team,” Mills said, who has 24 goals this season. “Their goalie was really good.”
Once the Marauders reach top speed, it is nearly impossible to slow them down.
“Having three up top (on offense) has really helped, and I’ve just been working on my mwovement,” Mills added.
Sophomore Lexi Hardie, who leads the nation in assists with 26, added the final goal on Monday to seal the win. She also has four goals this year and was named 2016 Daily Reporter Co-Player of the Year with teammate Morgan Scruggs, a junior.
Scruggs now has 15 goals and 11 assists this season while junior Nicole Ratts, who works the left side of the attack, has 17 goals and nine assists.
Mills, Ratts and Scruggs — mixed with Hardie in the middle — gives the Marauders a scary offensive punch at the top of its attack.
“We have been connecting the dots and finding each other’s feet,” Williams said. “We were a few games into the season when we tried it (3 at the top), and it was pretty efficient. We wanted to get Nicole Ratts more involved in the offense. We also move to a 4-4-2 when necessary.
“Bottom line, when I look at Nicole Ratts, Morgan Scruggs and Cleo Mills, I see 56 total goals, not their individual stats, and I believe that all of these girls benefit from the other two. They all bring something unique to the table, and we are fortunate that they work so well together. Our success depends on their unselfish play.”
Williams knew the offense would have little trouble finding net, but would the defense hold up after losing several key players to graduation?
It has so far.
Mt. Vernon is allowing 1.6 goals per game this season with two keepers sharing time in goal. Sophomore Jaici Wright is 12-2 with three shutouts and 57 saves while freshman Angelina Metcalf is 6-1 with one shutout and 21 saves.
“Both have exceeded expectations; we are playing Iron Man with our defense,” Williams said. “I do not believe Ellie Roach, Megan Gawrys or Alaina Nelson have come out of a game this year. Riley Hurst has played mostly every minute. We just have a very durable defense that has really stood up and scrapped and fought every game.”
The Marauders will need all hands on deck if they hope to repeat at the Greenfield-Central Sectional. Mt. Vernon will play New Palestine in the second game on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.
Last season, the Marauders beat the Dragons 2-1 for the New Palestine Sectional title.
Mt. Vernon Marauders (12-3, 7-0 HHC)
Goals: 75 (5 per game)
Assists: 63 (4.2 per game)
Defense: 1.6 goals allowed per game
Leaders: Cleo Mills, 24 goals. Lexi Hardie, 26 assists.