The 3A No. 7 Marauders are 7-2, the same record as last season at this point. MV went on to finish 23-6 and advance to the state finals, where Fort Wayne Concordia took the championship, 42-39.
But, this has been a different Mt. Vernon squad, particularly on the defensive end, where the Marauders are allowing 49.1 points per game, their highest total since 2006-07 and 10 points more porous than last season.
Part of the issue is ball handling against the press. Quick teams are forcing MV, which lost Indiana All-Star point guard Jessica Brown to graduation, into turnovers and creating a disparity in scoring opportunities. In the Marauders’ two losses, 3A Hamilton Heights went for 70 points, while 4A Anderson lit up MV for 83 points in an overtime game.
Despite the flaws, the Marauders remain one of the better 3A programs in the state and, at 4-0 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, are in line to win their third straight conference title.
Erica Moore — The 6-foot junior post has more a dozen scholarship offers from DI programs, including Purdue, IU, Michigan, Michigan State, Butler, Temple, Syracuse, St. John’s and Rutgers. With her play this season, the recruiting interest is understandable.
Moore is averaging 19.3 points on 57 percent shooting while pulling down 7.6 rebounds against one of the state’s tougher schedules. Moore leads Hancock County in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw shooting (81 percent).
It’s the first time in Moore’s three-year prep career she’s been looked to as the team’s dominant scorer, and she’s handled the role responsibly.
“She’s doing really well,” Mt. Vernon coach Julie Shelton said. “She’s had a great year, and I couldn’t be happier with her mentality and how hard she works in practice.
“I’ve just seen a lot of maturity in her this year.”
Moore’s numbers would be more eye-popping, but she’s had plenty of help at the offensive end from freshman guard Sydney Shelton (16.1 ppg) and senior guard Rachel Houck (10.9 ppg).
Shelton ranks second in the county in scoring behind Moore, while Houck is in the top three in the county in assists (3.6 pg), steals (3.1 pg) and 3-point shooting (40 percent).
Shaely Duff — The 5-9 sophomore forward has emerged as a nice addition to the Marauders’ post as starting forward Ellie Balbach deals with a concussion.
Balbach has missed the last two games, and Duff stepped in to score nine points in each contest while grabbing eight total rebounds and making six steals. In the Marauders’ first seven games, Duff scored 13 points.
“She’s come in and given us several good minutes,” Shelton said. “The last few games, I think she’s just relaxed. We knew she had potential, but as a sophomore I think the beginning of the year was kind of shocking for her a little bit.
“Plus, we’ve had some games where she could relax and it wasn’t quite the pressure of the first part of our schedule. And I think she’ll just get better and better.”
Mt. Vernon should have little trouble in winning a third straight Hancock County Tourney championship next week and, as mentioned above, another conference crown seems likely, with the Marauders having already defeated HHC contenders Pendleton Heights and Rushville.
And, it’s not quite a lock, but something would have to go wrong for the Marauders not to capture a third straight sectional title. Chatard (4-4) will host Sectional 26. If the tournament opened today, the Trojans would be a nine-point underdog to the Marauders, according to their respective 83.8 and 74.9 Sagarin ratings. Brebeuf (74.4) and Guerin Catholic (64.7) are the other contenders, with Howe (27.3) and Arlington (10.8) easy outs.
Shelton believes this year’s sectional will be more competitive than last season, when MV beat Brebeuf, Howe and Chatard by a combined 153 points.
“I think this year we will struggle in our sectional,” she said. “Chatard is very much improved and has a style of play that I think will give us some problems. And Brebeuf is improved.
“And with us not quite as good, I’m not saying that we can’t win the sectional, but it’s not going to be … we’re going to have to scout those teams a lot harder than we did last year and really focus at the sectional level.”
At the regional last season, the Marauders defeated Lebanon and Edgewood by a combined 42 points, but Lebanon was dealing with a tricky coaching situation at the time that left the Tigers unexpectedly under an interim coach. Now stabilized, Lebanon brings back most of its core — plus one of the state’s top freshman, Kristen Spolyar, who leads the Tigers with 19.7 points per game.
If Sectional 25 began today, Lebanon (92.6) would have a 16-point Sagarin edge over its closest competition. Indian Creek (Sectional 27) and Brown County and Edgewood (Sectional 28) are among the other favorites to meet at the four-team regional, which will be hosted by Danville, and none of those squads match up well with the talent level of Mt. Vernon or Lebanon.
There are no guarantees, of course. But all signs point to a Mt. Vernon streak in the postseason that will extend at least to the regional level.
“We have potential, but we have a lot of weaknesses,” Shelton said. “We’ve got a lot of things we need to try to fix. We need some more players like Shaely to continue to improve, maybe a couple more step up by tournament time to really have a legit shot at a run.
“I think we can upset a few teams or win a few games, but to make a big run you’ve got to have quite a bit of depth and luck and a lot of things go your way, even when you have a really good team. We’ve got a lot of things that have to fall our way in the next month or two, but having said that, I do think we’ve got a shot.”