FORTVILLE — It’s not easy to trust a freshman on the basketball court.
They’re often not as strong or quick as their older opponents. Freshmen aren’t experienced in high-pressure varsity situations. And their leadership skills are usually a few years away from taking shape.
Sydney Shelton is not your typical freshman. Mature — on and off the court — beyond her years, the Mt. Vernon point guard is Hancock County’s second-leading scorer, and perhaps the deciding factor in the Marauders’ attempt to make a second straight State Finals appearance.
“I feel bad for her because she’s got to do it all, basically,” said Mt. Vernon coach Julie Shelton, who added a “heck no” when asked if she’s ever relied more on a freshman than she has of her niece in 15 years as a head coach.
The Class 3A No. 7-ranked Marauders lost Indiana All-Star point guard Jessica Brown to graduation this summer, along with capable ball handler Kelsie Owens. The only experienced guard returning from last year’s 23-6 state runner-up squad was Rachel Houck, a senior more accustomed to the shooting guard spot.
The Marauders temporarily found a solution to their lack of backcourt depth in sophomore Olivia Coleman, who began this season like gangbusters, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury Nov. 13 midway through the team’s second game, a 50-49 win over Lawrence Central.
While Coleman isn’t quite the pure shooter that Shelton is, she could match Shelton in pure athleticism, playing any of three or four positions on the court, including point guard.
Coleman’s absence was noticeable Tuesday in the Marauders’ 83-75 overtime loss to 4A Anderson (5-1).
Shelton and junior center Erica Moore combined to score 28 of the Marauders’ 32 first-half points, and MV (5-2) was up by seven at the break.
In the second half, Anderson demolished MV with a full-court zone press, forcing 18 turnovers, which led to 14 more field goal attempts for the visitors in the final two-plus quarters.
“(Coleman’s injury) was a big hit, and really a big hit as far as athletic teams like this,” coach Shelton said Tuesday after the loss. “Even when we had Olivia for only half of a game against Lawrence Central, we had a lot more ball handling, a lot more athleticism to be able to match up.
“We are just really scarce at the guard spot, so Sydney’s going to have to take on that responsibility.”
Scoring at a 16.9 points per game clip, Sydney Shelton is not only handling the ball, she’s putting it in the hoop. Only Moore (20.3 ppg), currently being heavily recruited by several Division I schools, is scoring more points than Shelton among Hancock County players.
Tuesday, Moore and Shelton nearly willed the Marauders to a win, despite the turnover issue.
Moore recorded a career-high 33 points and Shelton finished with a 25 points, also the best scoring night of her young career. Through the third quarter, the duo notched 39 of the team’s 47 points and MV clung to a 47-43 lead despite 10 giveaways in the third quarter.
Anderson surged ahead 60-55 midway through the fourth stanza, but the Marauders made one final push to grab a 68-67 advantage. With 26.7 seconds to play, Shelton drove to the basket for a layup that would have given Mt. Vernon a 70-67 edge. Instead, she was called for a charge.
“That was probably the least of our best charges,” said Anderson coach Chad Cook, who felt that his team didn’t get enough calls on the night. “That was a good one, but the others were blatant. It was good to get that charge there. We’re working on that in a lot of drills we do.”
The Mt. Vernon coaching staff vehemently disagreed with the call, believing that the Anderson player was too far under the basket. Ultimately, three Mt. Vernon players fouled out of the game, while no Indians were disqualified with five fouls.
Anderson went on to send the game to overtime with a free throw. Moore knocked down two straight shots to open the extra session, but Anderson forced four turnovers in overtime and pulled away.
“We just don’t have enough kids that want the ball or understand how to break a press at this point,” coach Shelton said. “We’re young. I mean I had three freshmen in there so much of the time. We’ve got a long way to go, but hopefully by February we’ll figure it out.”
Shelton noted that if the Marauders are able to win another sectional title, they could face Lebanon in the regional. The Tigers (6-1) lost to MV in last year’s regional semifinal, but, like Anderson, return a quick squad that relies heavily on the press.
The younger Shelton commented that the turnover solution is simple: “We just need to have confidence in ourselves, calm down. Cut when we’re supposed to cut and listen to the coaches and just be confident in ourselves and in our teammates.”
Although she’s only 15-years-old, Shelton speaks from experience. Coach Shelton said, and she was only half-kidding, that she knew Sydney was going to be a special player since “she was about 4.”
“She’s always been really really good and has always just played and practiced,” the coach continued. “She’s probably put in about two hours a day since she was in first or second grade; put in a ton of time.
“She’s played so much basketball and just has a basketball mind. We’re asking her to do so many things because she has the body and the ball handling and all the skills to do it. And partly because we need her to.”
By comparison, Moore — probably the only player in the area better than Shelton — was brought along slowly. With a host of underclassmen ahead of Moore during her freshman and sophomore seasons, the talented post player netted 7.3 points per game as a freshman and 11.3 last season. Her 33-point effort Tuesday pushed her season average above 20, and it might not dip below that mark again over her final two seasons, which will likely conclude with an Indiana All-Star nod.
Moore, who is also pulling down a county-best 8.3 rebounds, didn’t eclipse 20 points in a game until January of last season during sophomore campaign. Shelton went for 21 points in the third game of her career, a 68-66 win over Rushville Nov. 16, and the Marauders’ first contest without Coleman.
Sydney has been contacted by a number of DI programs, including Kentucky, Illinois, Penn State, Marquette, Duke, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Southeast Missouri. And she’s a crucial piece of one of the state’s best girls basketball programs.
Shelton doesn’t feel any pressure, however.
“I just feel blessed to have this opportunity on this team,” she said. “Especially a good varsity team that made it to state last year. Being able to start, I just feel like I am getting to play a big role and I’m happy about that.”