FORTVILLE — Jawing back and forth with fellow senior Erick Shepherd inside the Mt. Vernon boys basketball locker room one last time, Michael Ertel smiled while shaking his head in dissent.
“I can dunk at the fieldhouse,” the 6-foot-1 Ertel quipped, shuffling his feet as he defended his vertical prowess against the 6-6 Shepherd. “I had a clean one before a game here.”
Shepherd glanced up from his smartphone momentarily with a condescending, yet playful, expression before the duo shared a laugh, standing a few feet away from the team’s plaid couch where they’ve lounged countless pregames before.
“See Shep will always dispute it. He will never admit that I get a clean one,” Ertel smirked. “It’s easy for him. He’s been able to since the eighth grade. I can throw it down.”
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Whether above or below the rim, one thing is indisputable about Ertel’s game — few in Marauders history could get buckets like the crafty, left-handed point guard.
With 1,282 points in his career, Ertel, a four-year varsity player, will graduate as the program’s second all-time leading scorer, 18 points better than C.J. Coleman (1,264 in 2014) and 108 points shy of Tim Miller (1,390 in 1998).
“He’s going to go down as one of the top few players in our program’s history, and you’re not talking about a program that has not had good players through the years,” Mt. Vernon head coach Travis Daugherty said. “For him to be historically toward the top, I think says a lot about his career.”
Named the unanimous 2016-17 All-Hancock County Player of the Year as voted upon by the area coaches and the Daily Reporter sports staff, Ertel will be known for many traits before he heads to the University of Louisiana Monroe this July.
None more than his drive to win.
Competitive to his core, Ertel plays for keeps in everything. From ping-pong to video games with his younger brother Luke, a fourth-grader, he craves nothing less than the W.
“I’m not very happy when I lose,” he said. “It just bothers me.”
The past three seasons, victory hasn’t been an issue for Ertel or the Marauders. Finishing his senior campaign with 465 points at 19.8 points per game, the fleet-footed sharpshooter led the county in scoring, 3-pointers made and his team to its third straight winning season.
Other than his freshman year, when the Marauders were 9-14, the team never dropped below 13 wins. A big part of that, Daugherty emphasized, was Ertel.
“That’s the thing that separates him from a lot of other guys that are very skilled. He’s one of the most determined players I’ve been around, and that’s no different for him whether it’s game night, a Monday practice or he’s playing kickball or checkers,” Daugherty said. “He’s wired to win.”
A self-made star and former aspiring baseball player, he’s not the type of person to quit in the face of adversity either, though a preseason injury unexpectedly jarred him — if not momentarily.
Diagnosed with a torn meniscus last July after his knee locked up, Ertel had a decision to make. Have the meniscus cut out completely, which would shorten his rehab to a mere blip, or have it repaired and endure a potential two-month recovery.
“It was a big panic because at first I thought I was going to miss a lot of games, but then the doctor said if I worked hard, I could continue to move the time table down,” said Ertel, who opted for the latter. “I got cleared and then the next couple of weeks we played a game. I didn’t have a lot of time, like I normally do, to really prepare like I’m used to. It was very different.”
Undergoing surgery on Aug. 26, Ertel stayed in shape by shooting in place during fall workouts and accelerated his conditioning once he was able to run the floor again in early November. But his quickness and lateral cuts were behind schedule.
“It definitely challenged my mind. It was different than anything I’ve ever been through,” he recalled.
It did little to slow him down, though. Opening the season with a 30-point outburst against Whiteland in the opener on Nov. 22, Ertel shot 12 of 24 from the field, foreshadowing things to come.
In 23 games, he posted 20 or more points 11 times and scored a season-high 31 points against Castle at Southport Fieldhouse on Dec. 10. For a third year in a row, he averaged more than 3.0 assists and rebounds a game.
The problem, however, was in both 30-point games, the team lost.
Mt. Vernon opened the year 2-4, including a tough 66-52 defeat to rival Pendleton Heights to commence the Hoosier Heritage Conference portion of the schedule on Dec. 9.
Something had to change, and Ertel needed little convincing. The team required wholesale consistency, and it meant sharing the scoring burden.
The Marauders responded. Shepherd, who finished his career with 1,051 points, rose to the occasion along with senior James McCloud, who averaged 12.1 ppg.
“When you have a guy like Ertel that opponents have to account for all the time, it frees up other people and make what you do work more easily because you know everybody is going to start there,” Daugherty said.
The wins snowballed as a result the next two months behind a pair of five-game winning streaks and a 6-0 run in the HHC. The Marauders placed second in the HHC standings behind Pendleton Heights.
“Our season didn’t start out very good, but nobody gave up. Everybody stayed focused and still had faith,” Ertel said. “We obviously struggled that game against Pendleton, but we picked it up later in the conference and won some big games. It always feels good to see that.”
Connersville was a different story. Falling to the Spartans in four overtimes during the regular season 88-85, the two teams locked up for 88 minutes through two games after a double-overtime slugfest in the New Castle Sectional.
The Marauders lost the finale 59-55, which was difficult for Ertel to absorb.
“Those two losses hurt. They hurt more than any I’ve had in my life just because we were so close. Sometimes I thought there’s no way we could have lost,” Ertel said. “As a player you’re not thinking about the amount of overtimes. You just want to win the game.”
Ertel found solace in his teammates after the Marauders fell in their first sectional game for a third straight year. His passion for the game also helped to sooth his frustration, along with the support of his coaches and family.
“I love that there are so many different ways you can succeed in basketball. You can be nonathletic and not a great shooter and still be a great player. You can affect the game in so many different ways and there are so many ways you can do it,” Ertel said. “It involves so much creativity, and as much work as you put in that’s what you’re going to get. It doesn’t ever lie to you.”
Ertel’s talent was as undeniable as his shot from beyond the arc, where he buried 69 treys this winter and 184 in his career.
Earning All-HHC honors, Ertel, an Indiana Junior All-Star, also netted Indiana Basketball Coaches Association Large School Senior All-State recognition.
He was named IBCA Academic All-State first team and has been invited to compete in the 29th Annual North/South Indiana All-Star Classic in Logansport this Sunday.
While Ertel fell short of winning his last game wearing old gold, white and black, he continues to win on and off the court with hopes of possibly securing an Indiana All-Star selection. It would be Mt. Vernon’s first since Daniel Turner in 2010.
“When I see the (Mt. Vernon) basketball locker room now, I know I’m not part of the team anymore,” Ertel remarked. “That stuff is kind of an adjustment. At the end of the day, though, I know I gave my all for it, and that’s all you can really ask for.
“I’m just going to miss being there with my guys every single day, having fun during practice and games. That’s the main thing, the little stuff not a lot of people see but most of our time consists of. That’s the thing I’ll really miss about high school.”