The Team to Beat: Marauders surge to No. 1 after strong start

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FORTVILLE — In one night, the Mt. Vernon Marauders not only added some significant weight but also plenty of clout after defeating rival New Palestine 35-22 last Friday.

The win marked the first time since Oct. 19, 2012 (40-21 in the sectional quarterfinals) that the Marauders have beaten the Dragons, and with the win came more than just a 4-0 season record and 2-0 start in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.

In the process, Mt. Vernon captured the coveted Boundary Rail, which has been in New Palestine’s possession, painted red, since the Marauders lost hold of it in 2013.

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The Marauders are now also the proud proprietors of the HHC’s traveling helmet trophy, which New Palestine held through their previous 49-game winning streak in league games.

Their victory at home in Week 4 signified a new era, several of the Marauders emphasized after their performance halted Class 5A No. 4 New Palestine’s 65-game regular-season run.

Yet, even after climbing The Associated Press 4A rankings this week to No. 1 overall, the Marauders aren’t satisfied.

“It’s kind of heavy. I guess I got to hit the weight room some more,” Mt. Vernon quarterback Gehrig Slunaker joked while carrying the Boundary Rail last Friday. “But, we’re not exactly where we want to be, (beating New Pal) is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is in November.”

A final four team in 2019, the Marauders are moving in the right direction, averaging 191.0 passing yards and 106.5 rushing yards through the midway portion of the regular-season.

Behind Slunaker’s 736 yards on 52-of-83 pass completions, Mt. Vernon has scored nine touchdowns through the air, 11 more with their rushing attack and four with punt returns — three by senior Rylan Cole.

“Having a new coaching staff come in my sophomore, it really just changed the program. It shows how much work we’ve put in,” said Cole, an Indiana State recruit.

“I really think the sky is the limit. The only thing that’s going to beat us is us. Now, coming in, we’re the team to beat. Everyone is going to be gunning for us, and we really just need to keep our heads high and keep working just as hard as we were before.”

With another big hurdle in front of them this Friday, finding challenges won’t be an issue for the Marauders.

In Week 5, Mt. Vernon face’s HHC foe Delta (3-0, 2-0 HHC), which hasn’t lost to the Marauders since 2017. Armed with a strong passing game, the Eagles rely on quarterback Brady Hunt, who has passed for five touchdowns and 325 yards the past three weeks.

“(Coach) Chris Overholt does an unbelievable job at Delta. He’s a good friend of mine. They have a great quarterback in Brady Hunt, and it’s going to be a problem for us,” Mt. Vernon head coach Mike Kirschner said. “It has been for two years. Brady Hunt has shredded us for two years.”

In three seasons at Mt. Vernon, Kirschner owns a 22-7 record and is 131-69 in his 18-year career. However, in two meetings with Delta since he took control of the Marauders’ program in 2018, Mt. Vernon hasn’t posted more than 14 points in consecutive losses.

The Marauders intend to change that trend, too.

Versatile on offense, Cole leads the running game with 159 yards on 30 carries for 5.3 yards per rushing attempt and two touchdowns. Keagan La Belle has four rushing touchdowns with 87 yards on 23 carries.

Austin Gentry paces the receiving corp. with 266 yards on 15 receptions, while 6-foot-6, senior Tanner Koziol, a newcomer from La Grange, Ill., provides a new element with 173 yards on 16 catches with six touchdowns through four games.

Koziol debuted for the Marauders with a pair of touchdowns and 48 yards during Mt. Vernon’s 42-17 opening week win over Noblesville. He had two more against New Palestine with 84 yards in his first Boundary Rail game.

“I definitely felt the energy through the team. The team really showed the disrespect from New Pal over the years. We did what we had to do,” Koziol said. “I love having that chip on my shoulder. I love rivalry games. It makes football fun. We have really come together as a team.”

The defense will need to be focused against Delta, which boasts two receivers with 114 or more yards and four rushers with 115-plus yards.

Senior Javaughn Whitfield is the team’s most productive rusher with 229 yards on 41 carries and three touchdowns. Sophomore Abram Stitt has 222 yards and two touchdowns, though 144 yards came during a 68-0 win over Shelbyville on Sept. 4.

La Belle is the leading tackler for Mt. Vernon with 35 total takedowns, 3.5 for a loss and four sacks.

“He’s a tackling magnet. He doesn’t have the same pop that Antonio Allen had (at Ben Davis in 2010-13), but he tackles like him, meaning if he’s near you, you’re going down,” Kirschner said. “He has an unbelievable knack to put the chest, wrap and roll.”

The Marauders defense has a tremendous ability to penetrate the pocket with 21 sacks combined and five interceptions so far.

The key is sustaining their momentum — and hardware — with nothing but HHC games ahead, including sectional opponent Pendleton Heights (4-0, 2-0 HHC) in Week 6.

“This is my third year here and we have not beaten Delta. I immediately talked about it. I want them to enjoy (the New Pal win), but we have not beaten Delta the last two years,” Kirschner said. “It would be nice, and if we have this traveling trophy, it would be nice to not give it back to somebody after one week. It’s not a seven-day deal.”

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Friday Night Football Schedule

Eastern Hancock (2-2) at Knightstown (3-0)

GAME TIME: 7 p.m. at Willard Field

SERIES LAST 35 YEARS: Eastern Hancock, 22-17

LAST MEETING: Eastern Hancock, 46-27, Sep. 20, 2019

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Greenfield-Central (0-2, 0-2 HHC) at Shelbyville (0-4, 0-2 HHC)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m. at McKeand Field

SERIES LAST 35 YEARS: Shelbyville, 23-12

LAST MEETING: Greenfield, 67-0, Sep. 20, 2019

•••

Mt. Vernon (4-0, 2-0 HHC) at Delta (3-0, 2-0 HHC)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m. at Delta Stadium

SERIES LAST 35 YEARS: Delta, 22-15

LAST MEETING: Delta, 27-10, Sep. 20, 2019

•••

New Palestine (2-1, 1-1 HHC) at Pendleton Heights (4-0, 2-0 HHC)

GAME TIME: 7:30 p.m. at Broughton Field

SERIES LAST 35 YEARS: New Palestine, 19-10

LAST MEETING: New Palestine, 47-6, Sep. 20, 2019

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