GREENFIELD — The Mt. Vernon girls basketball team won its record fourth-straight Hancock County Tournament championship Saturday, and the program showed no signs of slowing down.
Class 3A No. 7 Mt. Vernon defeated Eastern Hancock 71-43 in the championship after dismantling a young New Palestine squad 65-25 in the semifinals.
No team — boys or girls — had ever won four straight county trophies; the original boys tourney ran from 1920-1967 and the tourney was resurrected in its current form for both sexes in 2003.
“It’s neat because New Pal, Greenfield ... we’ve had a lot of good teams,” MV 15th-year coach Julie Shelton said. “This one obviously was a little bit easier, but over the last few years there’s been some battles and a lot of good games. So, it’s neat for all our kids. We’ve had a good group of girls.”
2A Eastern Hancock (10-4) was new to the local championship mix — the Royals were 1-17 in the tourney entering the day. But a nice win over 4A Greenfield-Central in the morning semifinal set up the Royals’ second-ever county title-game appearance.
Against the Marauders (10-2), the persistent Royals held their own for the first five minutes. With the score tied 7-7, however, just past the halfway point of the first quarter, Sydney Shelton and Rachel Houck fueled a 41-7 run to close the second half and essentially seal the win.
Shelton, a freshman guard, and Houck, a senior guard, tallied 18 and 13 points, respectively, in the first half to stake MV to a 48-14 lead. Shelton finished with a tourney single-game high 27 points and was named to the All-County Team, along with Houck (17 points in the championship) and their junior center teammate Erica Moore (14 points).
Eastern Hancock’s Kiersten Schrope (14 points vs. Marauders) and Kristin Eischen (nine points) joined the MV trio on the All-County squad, which was selected by coaches. Greenfield-Central’s Shelby Oldham and Emily Koers and New Palestine’s Natalie Kehrt filled out the standout unit.
As much as Mt. Vernon’s historic four-peat deserved notice, the county tourney was just as significant for Eastern Hancock’s emergence as a program to be respected.
“Probably the most team-wide skill and depth that I’ve seen in a while at Eastern,” said Shelton, whose 2004 Marauders beat EH 42-35 the last time the Royals made it to the county championship game. “I just thought that they have a lot of kids that can do things. They handle the ball well. They play hard. Never saw any quit in them.”
Indeed, Eastern Hancock outscored MV 29-23 in the second half Saturday, although mostly reserves took the court for the Marauders in the final quarter.
It was a lack of “quit” on the Royals’ part that served them well in their 59-50 semifinal win over G-C (4-8). Eastern Hancock trailed 24-21 early in the third quarter, then put together a 17-4 blitz that helped the Royals secure their first victory over their county big sister Cougars since Dec. 29, 2004 — the Royals’ only previous county tourney win.
Eischen had 22 points in the win, including 13 points in the decisive third quarter.
“She just happened to get hot,” EH second-year coach Jeremy Powers said of his junior forward. “But it goes back to what I said at the beginning of the year — I feel like, at times, she can be the best athlete in this county. And there was nobody that could stop her there in that third quarter. She just flat took the game over.”
The county tourney marked the end of 3A/4A portion of the Royals’ regular season schedule. They finished 3-2 against the large schools and have six games left before they begin their quest for their first sectional title since 2001.
“I told the girls, ‘That gives you nothing but confidence now,’” Powers said of the win over G-C, and the Royals’ big-school success in general. “We feel we’re just as good as anybody else. This is with all due respect to Greenfield and New Palestine when I say this, but I told our girls this morning, ‘You’re one of the top two teams in this county, now go out and prove it.’ And they did.
“It’s a big day for us. To be able to beat Greenfield and do it in the matter we did gives these girls a ton of confidence heading into the rest of the season.”
Mt. Vernon is also looking ahead. The 3A state finals runner-up last year, the Marauders have been in makeshift mode after losing three starters to graduation, and another starter in sophomore Olivia Coleman early this season to a knee injury. Senior starting forward Ellie Balbach has been out of action the last three weeks with a concussion, and junior forward Maddie Walrod is battling through a leg injury.
“This team is a lot younger,” said Houck, who has participated in all four of MV’s recent county championships. “The last three teams were all experienced, but Sydney’s a freshman that’s playing. Me and Erica and Krista (Shockley) are the oldest on the team, so people are still trying to get used to stuff.”
Shelton and sophomore Shaely Duff (seven points in each game Saturday) are new to the Marauders’ varsity lineup, and Shockley is receiving her first major minutes.
Despite the personnel turnover, the new mix hasn’t had trouble scoring; MV is netting 61.6 points per game, its highest total in over 10 years. But, the Marauders are also allowing 45.6 points, their highest total since MV’s last losing team, the 2007-08 squad, finished 9-12 while giving up 47.6 points.
Coach Shelton said that defensive improvement will be a focus as the Marauders close out the regular season. She got no argument from her senior captain.
“I agree, because last year we were only giving up 35 points, this year it’s in the 50s, which is unacceptable (sighs),” Houck said, sighting the team’s pre-tourney defensive average. “We definitely need to start buckling down on defense or we won’t have a chance to make a run in the tourney.”
The Marauders will get a possible tourney preview Thursday when they face Western Boone in a showcase at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Stars (10-4) will feed into the same Danville Regional as MV, if both teams win their sectionals. Western Boone and Lebanon (10-2) are favored to compete for the Sectional 25 title at Lebanon.
Mt. Vernon and Guerin (10-4) have the top records among teams in Sectional 26, to be hosted by Chatard.
In Sectional 27 at Beech Grove, Tri-West (10-2) and Indian Creek (10-4) are shaping up as championship contenders.
At Sectional 28 in Brown County, an even field includes Greencastle (8-5), Owen Valley (7-3) and Edgewood (7-3).
The tourney draw is Jan. 27, and the sectional fun will begin Feb. 5.
Last season, Mt. Vernon dominated its sectional, then defeated Lebanon and Edgewood in convincing fashion to claim the regional.
The regional format includes two games in one day — morning or early afternoon semifinal followed by an evening championship — the same format as the county tourney.
“You’ve got to learn to do that,” Shelton said. “And you don’t get a chance to do that in the regular season, normally. So, that’s a big bonus of this.”
Notes: The Fortville High School boys (1938-40) and Greenfield-Central girls (2006-08) were the only teams to win three straight county titles, besides the MV girls. In the original boys tourney, prior to school consolidation, many more than four teams competed, making repeat titles harder to come by. … Sydney Shelton added six rebounds, five steals and three assists for MV in the championship. … Lauren Harmon had seven points for EH. Schrope tallied five assists.
Greenfield-Central 55, New Palestine 37
The Cougars outscored the Dragons 19-9 in the third quarter to break open a close game.
Freshman Savannah Girolami scored 19 points and Koers added 13 points for G-C, which led 21-18 at halftime.
Freshmen Haley Stratman (14 points) and Kehrt (10 points) led the Dragons (2-11), who were playing their fourth game in two days. On Friday, the Dragons went 0-2 at the Franklin Tourney.