FORTVILLE — Mt. Vernon senior Mitch McCarthy carried last year’s sectional heartbreak with him into Friday night’s game against Pendleton Heights.
He also brought the memory of family friend Nick Smoot, who passed away last weekend.
Playing with a dual purpose in the Sectional 22 semifinals, McCarthy and the Class 4A Marauders shut out the Arabians 13-0, marking the team’s first shutout of the year and seventh straight win.
More importantly, it put them one step away from their first sectional title in four years.
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“The fact that our defense came out and played the way they did really means a lot, especially when it was such a rough week for some of us,” McCarthy said. “The Smoot family is like my second family. We dedicated this whole week for him. It meant a lot to me, the team and the Smoot family that we came out here and put up a shutout.”
Smoot was a member of the Marauders’ last sectional championship roster in 2012. Many of the players attended Smoot’s services this week while trying to remain focused on the task at hand — beating Pendleton Heights (3-8).
It wasn’t easy, especially with the added pressure of the week with the Arabians being the culprits of the Marauders’ early sectional exit last fall. Mt. Vernon lost 41-7 in the semifinals in 2015 after beating Pendleton Heights 35-7 during the regular season.
Not this time.
“This is big for us, we’ve been working for this since preseason, especially after last year,” McCarthy said. “As seniors, the 14 of us, some of us might never play again, all week we were focused on getting what we needed done because we remembered last year.”
The Marauders (8-3) knocked off the Arabians 28-9 during the regular season this year on Sept. 23 en route to a 6-1 HHC record and second place in the conference, but nothing is ever certain when the teams meet twice in one year.
In 2010, the Arabians followed the same pattern as 2015, winning in the first-round of the sectional after losing in the regular-season.
The first of only two two-game sweeps prior to Friday went to Pendleton Heights in 2011. The second went to Mt. Vernon in 2012, the last time the Marauders clinched a sectional championship.
Mt. Vernon hopes history repeats as they move on to face HHC rival Delta in the finals next Friday.
“When you get to the playoffs usually your late-season defense will determine the game,” Mt. Vernon head coach Doug Armstrong said. “We were able to shut down their running game for the most part tonight, which made them one-dimensional. That helped us.”
McCarthy and fellow senior Nathan Seifert did their part as each picked off Pendleton Heights quarterback Christian Conkling once. Seifert’s set the tone as he snagged the ball on just the third play from scrimmage.
The Marauders defense limited the Arabians to 11 first downs and 145 total yards on offense overall. The group blanked the Arabians on third downs (0-for-10) and added a sack.
Meanwhile, the offense did just enough, piling up 473 yards and converting on two of its first five possessions to go ahead 13-0 before halftime.
Quarterback Zac Montgomery passed for 266 yards — with 184 in the first half — and tossed a pair of touchdowns, measuring 52 and 30 yards.
The first went to McCarthy for 52 yards on a second-and-10 early in the second quarter.
The other unfolded just before the break as Montgomery found Alex Barnett for the score with 27.6 seconds left on the clock.
The Marauders could have added more, but mistakes cut them short.
“Offensively, we didn’t play well in the first half. We missed way too many opportunities,” Armstrong said. “We have a penalty and a fumble that keeps you from scoring. Those are missed opportunities, if you don’t shut the other team down, they come back to haunt you.”
On their first offensive series, the Marauders were stopped on the Arabians’ 19 with a turnover on downs. A penalty for blocking in the back robbed them of a 41-yard touchdown pass from Montgomery to Barnett in the first half. The possession ended with a lost fumble on the next play.
Montgomery entered the game with 1,624 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. He completed 12 completions for touchdowns the past six weeks during the Marauders winning streak.
Against Pendleton this year, the junior gunslinger completed 14 of 16 passes for 292 yards and a pair of scores while rushing for another. He completed 21 of 32 attempts in the rematch on Friday, finding seven different receivers.
Eric Jones had 117 yards rushing on 24 carries to lead the Marauders while McCarthy paced the receiving corp. with seven catches and 85 yards.
The Marauders turned a 1-3 start to the season into a 7-3 campaign with a six-game win streak to advance into the Sectional 22 semifinals in position for a fifth-straight winning campaign.
Now, they are one more hurdle to resetting their postseason goals.
“Our seniors are awesome guys. They remind me of the 2012 seniors that Nick Smoot was part of,” Armstrong said. “It’s interesting how those things can happen. Let’s keep it going. One more.”