CONNERSVILLE — The disappointment was profound.
As the New Palestine Dragons celebrated their first girls basketball sectional title in 14 years at center court of the Spartan Bowl on Saturday night, the Mt. Vernon Marauders felt the weight of defeat.
And it hurt.
An afterthought by some, especially in a highly-competitive Class 4A Sectional 9 tournament, the Marauders weren’t expected to contend for the title, let alone reach the championship game.
An 11-win team with limited postseason experience on its roster, the Marauders (11-13) simply weren’t supposed to be a threat.
But they were.
Story continues below gallery
Knocking off co-Hoosier Heritage Conference champion Pendleton Heights (16-9, 6-1 HHC) during the sectional semifinals, 47-40, in overtime on Friday night, the Marauders revealed who they were and precisely what head coach Julie Shelton believes they can be.
On Saturday night in the title game, they nearly took that final step in search of the team’s first sectional crown since winning the 3A state title under Shelton in 2012-13 — if not for a frustrating third quarter.
“They fought, and I was proud of them. When we came out in the third quarter and we couldn’t score right away and things didn’t go our way, we could have quit,” said Shelton, who returned to the program in 2017-18 after three years as an assistant coach at Butler University. “I thought they fought until the final seconds.”
Up 15-12 in the second half, a 12-1 run by New Palestine shifted the momentum along with a surprising seven foul calls going against the Marauders in the first few minutes of the third quarter.
The Marauders fell behind by as many as 13 points while the uncontrollable took hold before they charged back to cut the deficit to four, 37-33, and later three, 42-39, in the final 41 seconds.
“It was a tough environment and we weren’t getting some breaks, but you just have to keep trying to fight through, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Shelton said.
In the future, they might be able to through lessons learned.
The Marauders opened the year 3-7 before turning things around by winning four of their next five. They defeated New Palestine (18-6, 5-2 HHC) 60-47 during the regular season to halt their rival’s quest at a conference title.
Their postseason win against Pendleton Heights avenged an earlier 51-39 loss on Dec. 2.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve been super proud of them. It’s my first year back. None of these kids have played for me. I can’t be more proud of their effort,” said Shelton, who owns a 271-120 record in 17 seasons at Mt. Vernon. “I hope this hurts a lot and our young kids want to work really hard for this moment next year.”
Those younger players like freshman Lexi Shelton, who scored a game-high 14 points, and catalyst such as sophomore guard Sydnee Perry took their final loss and embraced it.
“I think this will help us take a lot of steps forward and taught us where we could be and what we need to do to get there,” Perry said.
Losing key seniors like Sophie Williams, Kaitlyn Nugent, Mary Fleming and Kaitlin Dunlavy will be difficult, Julie Shelton remarked, but their efforts and the run her team put together won’t go to waste.
“Until you have the feeling of truly wanting to win and the feeling of being so close to winning, you don’t really get it,” Shelton said. “I think tonight, for the first time for some of the kids, they realized what it’s going to take No. 1 and No. 2 how bad losing in this game hurts.”