MUNCIE — Lightning nearly struck twice for the Mt. Vernon Marauders.
Down 12-6 late to rival Delta during the Sectional 22 championship on Friday night, the Marauders put themselves in position to finish right where they started.
Winning seven straight entering the game, a habit they initiated with grit and perseverance on the same field almost two months ago, the Marauders defense forced its second straight turnover on downs, handing the ball to the offense with 1:36 left on the clock in the fourth quarter.
The scenario was almost a mirror image of the Marauders’ 20-19 come-from-behind regular-season win against Delta on Sept. 16, which Mt. Vernon sealed with a game-winning touchdown drive.
This time, though, the host Eagles’ defense held on, despite the game hanging in the balance until the final seconds, keeping the Marauders from their first sectional title since 2012.
The championship was Delta’s second consecutive and ninth overall.
“It was exactly like the last game except the last time we scored at the end and won by one,” Mt. Vernon head coach Doug Armstrong said. “They’re pretty good, but I think we’re pretty good, too.”
The Marauders marched from their own 45 to the Eagles 14, netting three first downs on their final drive from two runs by junior quarterback Zac Montgomery and an 11-yard pass completion to senior Mitch McCarthy on third-and-10 from Delta’s 42.
Needing four yards for a first down on fourth-and-4, Montgomery connected with junior Eric Jones, but the play fell two yards short of a repeat rally.
“The defense did their job the entire night, but the offense hit a few skids. It cost us tonight,” Montgomery said. “Sometimes that happens, but I’m proud of the guys. We fought.”
Mt. Vernon (8-5) fell behind 12-0 after the first half as Delta freshman running back Charlie Spegal came out on a mission.
The power back bulldozed to a 143 yards on 22 carries in the first half with 55 yards on the Eagles’ initial drive, which ate up seven minutes.
Spegal pushed forward to gain nine rushing first downs in the first half. His eighth put the Eagles ahead 12-0 as the bruiser barreled into the end zone from 14 yards out on a third-and-6 midway through the second quarter.
He finished with 212 yards on 41 carries as Delta racked up 248 yards rushing in the game.
Mt. Vernon’s defense halted Delta’s opening drive at the 2-yard line, however, as they threatened in the red zone. Unfortunately, on the ensuing possession a lost fumble put the Eagles right back in striking distance.
Delta (8-5) used five plays to cover 18 yards and went up 6-0 on a Tanner Lambert 17-yard pass to Blake Green in the first quarter. Spegal’s touchdown capped a 76-yard drive that stretched 4:34 in the second quarter.
“He’s a big dude. He’s big and powerful. He’s hard to get down. He’s bigger than our linebackers really,” Armstrong remarked on Spegal. “Their quarterback is a good player, too.”
Delta didn’t find any traction in the second half, though, as Mt. Vernon’s defense forced four turnovers on downs and a punt. The Marauders defense stopped the Eagles in the red zone twice and three times within the 40-yard line.
“We made a couple of adjustments and got used to their quickness, settled down and played some pretty good defense,” Armstrong said. “It was a pretty even game after that.”
The Marauders put together a 5:17 series late in the first half, but turned it over on downs. Mt. Vernon started two drives from their own 11 with another at the 1 as both teams defenses stymied the other throughout.
Mt. Vernon senior linebacker Charles DeGraff had a pair of crucial sacks to give him 13 on the season, and Montgomery was under constant pressure in the pocket but wiggled free and avoided multiple would-be sacks.
The junior quarterback passed for 179 yards on 20 of 39 completions.
His ability to scramble under duress paid off in the fourth quarter when he rolled out on second-and-23 to find a wide open Cole Van Slyke. The junior sprinted 64-yards for the Marauders’ lone touchdown with 9:45 left in regulation.
“It was the exact same as the first game,” McCarthy said. “We came back and fought, but we just couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had. There wasn’t anything else we could have done. I’m proud of the boys.”
Armstrong showed his appreciation for the seniors after the game. Instructing his underclassmen to form a tunnel in the end zone, each senior was thanked personally by the coaches and their teammates as they walked off the field for the last time.
“Most of these guys are all four-year, so they’ve been through it all. Football, it doesn’t just happen during the season, you’re together in the offseason, in weight training and in the summer,” Armstrong said. “You see them and bond. We did that these last four years. This senior group was a special group.”