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COLUMN: Believe it. MV girls are headed back to State Finals

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There is absolutely no way the Mt. Vernon girls basketball team should be playing this weekend, not in Terre Haute, not in Fortville. Not in any gym.

Ellie Balbach and Rachel Houck should be in complete softball mode, eye-blacked, glove oiled and in full spring swing. Sydney Shelton and Erica Moore should be planning their AAU hoops campaigns. And coach Julie Shelton should be enjoying some time with her family.

Instead, those players, their teammates and head coach Shelton will take on Hamilton Heights Saturday in Terre Haute for what would be the second team state championship in Mt. Vernon sports history.

With the issues the ladies have surmounted, this is Julie Shelton’s finest coaching job, and she’s already well into a Hall of Fame career. And the Marauders players deserve immense credit for staying on a winning warpath, no matter the obstacles in their way.


* Two of the Marauders’ four best players underwent knee surgery this season, one of which never returned and the other who is still recovering.

* MV opened the season without the services of 2013 graduates Jessica Brown (Indiana All-Star point guard), center Makenzi Reasor (currently at NCAA Division I Indiana State), rebounding machine and defensive menace Anna Olson and reliable ball-handler Kelsie Owens.

* And, not that it impacted her coaching ability, but coach Shelton was also hobbled after severely injuring a hamstring during preseason, private conditioning work in the early morning hours in the high school gym. It was as if the Gods of Basketball were foreshadowing their efforts to strike down the Marauders’ desire to return to the Class 3A State Finals, where they lost to Fort Wayne Concordia a year ago.

Shelton likely would have given up her other healthy leg in order to save Moore or Olivia Coleman from damage.

Moore’s meniscus tear has been fairly well-covered in these sports pages; the future DI post, generally regarded as one of the two or three best power forwards/centers in the state, missed seven games late in the season rehabbing her injury and subsequent surgery. Although not as serious as an anterior cruciate or medial cruciate ligament injury, Moore’s return for the sectional opener just four weeks to the day of her procedure is a testament to her willpower. She’s been a postseason force, even as her conditioning isn’t back to 100 percent.

Less well known, and it’s been over three months since it happened, is Coleman’s loss from the team. I was lucky enough to see Coleman play in MV’s first game of the season. The five-foot-8 sophomore had seven points, eight rebounds and four steals in a win over Connersville. Although she helped handle the ball, there was not a single position on the court she wasn’t capable of taking hold of, on either end of the court.

As athletic as, if not more so, MV freshman standout Sydney Shelton, Coleman was exactly what the Marauders needed as they attempted to replace steady veteran Brown in the backcourt.

“She’s the secret weapon,” coach Shelton told me after that game. “I think she’s going to be the difference in us being an average or an above-average team, depending on how much she can grow as a player.”

Alas, Coleman, who sat out her freshman season for non-injury related reasons, played only one more full quarter — contributing eight points and six rebounds in a little over eight minutes of action in a 50-49 win over Lawrence Central — before blowing out her ACL in the second quarter.

When I first heard of Coleman’s injury, I thought, “That’s it. They might squeeze out another sectional championship, but they’re not getting past the regional.”

Coleman was — and hopefully will be again — that good. Later, besides the injuries to Coleman and Moore, starter Balbach and reserves Krista Shockley and Maddie Walrod missed a combined 13 games with various ailments.

And, yet, here we are.

The Marauders certainly struggled through the injuries, even though their 22-4 record may not indicate how much they were challenged, especially by smaller, quicker teams that pressed and took advantage of MV’s lack of experienced guards.

Hamilton Heights, the Marauders’ State Finals foe, ran MV off the court in a 70-61 regular season win Nov. 21. In the host Marauders’ second game without Coleman, the Huskies opened up a 47-27 halftime lead against a MV squad that usually doesn’t allow 47 points an entire game.

The Huskies will find a different MV opponent waiting Saturday in Terre Haute.

Shelton, in her 15th year and closing in on 250 wins, has expertly melded an often revolving group of players into semistate champs. At one point this year, as injuries mounted, Shelton quipped that she didn’t know until game day who would be available: “I check with the trainer, and they tell me who I’ve got.”

In that regular season loss to Hamilton Heights, Shaely Duff took one shot and scored two points. It was her first career varsity field goal. In the Marauders’ semistate win over Rushville Saturday, Duff, a five-foot-9 guard, notched a career-high 15 points as the Lions battered Moore and Shelton into a combined 8-of-27 shooting effort.

With Duff’s emergence — at 5.1 points per game and climbing she’s the team’s fourth-leading scorer behind Moore (17.8 ppg), Shelton (17.8 ppg) and Houck (11.5 ppg) — the Marauders are poised to bring home the school’s first championship since the softball team won a state title in 2000.

MV was on the brink of a basketball title last year before Fort Wayne Concordia (eliminated in this year’s tourney by Hamilton Heights) made enough shots down the stretch to take a 42-39 trophy win at Indiana State.

But, as my colleague Grant Freking pointed out the other day, and I believe correctly so, the Marauders are a better team in their return to Terre Haute because of who they don’t have.

Specifically, without graduated post players Reasor and Olson filling the paint, Moore is free to do her thing — and with a rare combination of power and quickness, what a thing it is.

That’s not a knock against Reasor or Olson, the latter of whom was one of my favorite players because she dove after loose balls like she was saving a small child from wandering into traffic and the former of whom was a nimble, 6-2 offensive threat.

Combined, Reasor and Olson made one perfect player. But their station under the basket meant Moore had to share the ball, and Moore is the type of talent that should get the rock each and every time she gets position under the hoop.

Moore’s dominance has shown brightly this season when she hasn’t been hobbled. Throw in Sydney Shelton, possibly the state’s best freshman, and you have a so-far unbeatable 1-2 postseason combo.

After I believed the Marauders to be doomed post-Coleman, I sent Julie a text message that said, essentially: Don’t worry, the team was probably better off anyway not making it back to state this year because, per the IHSAA’s new tradition factor, a semistate win would put the Marauders in 4A next year. Better for MV to bow out after the sectional or regional this season, then make another 3A run next year.

Julie never replied to that text, probably because I’m an idiot. And this idiot will be sitting across from the MV bench Saturday night at Indiana State, the same place I was a year ago, wondering how exactly the Marauders pulled off a return trip.

Although I might be figuring it out: Last year’s squad made it on talent. This winter, it’s been all about guts.

Brian Harmon is the Greenfield Daily Reporter sports editor. Contact him at (317) 477-3227 or at bharmon@greenfieldreporter.com. Follow on Twitter @GDRsports.

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