FORTVILLE — As the losses mounted through the first few weeks of the season, Travis Daugherty delivered the same message to his players repeatedly.

Stay the course, the head coach stressed.

Despite facing a 2-4 record in mid-December and an uphill climb at 0-1 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference race, the Mt. Vernon boys basketball team heeded Daugherty’s advice.

The result was a third consecutive winning season in Daugherty’s fourth year at Mt. Vernon, and an epic double-overtime sectional finale against rival Connersville that won’t soon be forgotten.

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Able to run the table to finish runner-up behind champion Pendleton Heights (17-7, 7-0) in the HHC, the Marauders (14-9, 6-1) strung together two five-game winning streaks and won 12 of their last 16 games.

The turning point stemmed from Daugherty’s senior leaders — Michael Ertel, Alex Fouts, James McCloud and Erick Shepherd — but also from the coach’s belief in his players’ commitment to the process.

Named the All-Hancock County Coach of the Year, as voted upon the area coaches and Daily Reporter sports staff, Daugherty steered his Class 4A Marauders to several key victories, including against 3A state champion Frankton.

They also went toe-to-toe with 4A Connersville through a combined six overtimes, falling in both with the last in the New Castle Sectional, but the journey, Daugherty said, supersedes the disappointments. One he will remember fondly.

Recently, the Daily Reporter spoke with Daugherty about the season, the team’s battle with Connersville and his players’ resolve.

What’s the most memorable part of this season for you?

TD: I really enjoyed this group of guys. Every season has its ups and downs and you have some nights where you really put it together and the game is really fun. And then every team every season has those nights where it just doesn’t fit and it’s not nearly as much fun.

But not matter what with this team, I really loved coming to practice every day. I loved showing up for game night. That says a lot about the character of those guys and their make-up. After five months together, I wasn’t ready for it to end.

Were there concerns initially with the slow start that you had to find that consistency?

TD: There are always two sides to how you play. There’s the score, which is obviously important and reflective of the team you have and how you’ve done. And then, there’s that other side that isn’t necessarily reflected by a score. It’s more about are we playing the game the right way? And are we playing hard enough? Are we playing for each other?

In both areas we got exposed a little bit early in the year. We weren’t quite doing it the way it needed to be done, and a huge compliment to our players was they were willing to change. Instead of holding on tighter to something that wasn’t working, they were willing to grow and improve. As they did that, and I did that during the year, we continued to get better as a team. That was reflected by the scoreboard and in all those other areas.

How much did the players take it upon themselves to collect a third-straight winning season for the program?

TD: Our guys just kept pursuing that improvement and that was a reflection of our leadership from our seniors. They really set the tone in that way, but our younger guys, who had spent the year gaining experience, really kind of came into their own late in the year. The goal for us, that we talk about every season, is to be playing our best at the end of the year. I really felt like we continued with that progression.

How unforgettable are those 88 minutes you played against Connersville?

TD: It’s going to be a hard one to forget. I think both of those games will probably linger in our memory for a long time. Those are games you remember whether you win or lose because everything is magnified. As the regular-season game went into more and more overtimes, the magnitude of what it meant grew. And certainly in the tournament when you’re playing for your postseason life and career.

It’s hard still to think we lost both of those games, especially the sectional game because I felt we played really well and needed to make just a couple of plays to finish it. But there’s no shame losing a game when you’ve really done all you can do.

How difficult was it to lose that final game? 

TD: When you want it so bad for those guys, and you’ve seen how hard they’ve worked and you want them to reap the reward for that work, that’s the hardest part of it. Wanting to win and advance, of course is always a motivator, but what’s great about the winning is you get to do it again. What’s tough about losing is that when you don’t think it’s going to be done, the finality of it is difficult.

I really thought we were going to win and I know our guys felt the same way. To be that close and come up a little short was tough.

How hard is it going to be to say goodbye to this senior group?

TD: I was a freshman here when those guys were freshmen. To have been through all we’ve been through from the beginning with them is special. Obviously, you put on top of that the impact those four guys had on our program. Statistically, it’s impressive, but beyond the numbers, just the role they played in what our program is and our culture now, you know you’re going to miss that once they’re gone.

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.