NEW CASTLE — There was some mild tension in the first half.
Up 21-0 over New Castle during the Sectional 21 championship Friday night, top-ranked Class 4A Mt. Vernon’s lead nearly all but vanished, 21-14, by halftime.
But, the Marauders’ confidence never waned.
Instead, quarterback Gehrig Slunaker threw for three second-half touchdowns and rushed for another as the unbeaten Marauders cruised to a 49-20 victory and back-to-back sectional titles.
The sectional championship marked the program’s first consecutive run in school history and sixth overall since 1997. The title was the team’s third in 4A with the first coming in 2012.
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“This feels amazing. We’re out here breaking records, and honestly, it’s a dream come true, out here playing football and winning championships,” Mt. Vernon junior Keagan La Belle said. “We knew we had to keep our heads up and keep playing. In the second (half), we came out and played our best football.”
The first half was a stark contrast, however, and the favored Marauders weren’t dodging that reality.
La Belle, who rushed for 119 yards on 17 carries in the game, racked up 92 yards in the first half and reached the end zone on a pair of touchdown runs.
His first measured 2 yards to cap a 65-yard, 10-play drive on Mt. Vernon’s second possession.
His second put the Marauders ahead 14-0 with 11 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the second quarter before senior Rylan Cole added a 1-yard rushing touchdown with 5:09 left to make it 21-0.
From there, mistakes proved costly, at least momentarily.
On New Castle’s ensuing drive, the Trojans (5-6) capitalized despite being without senior quarterback William Grieser (1,799 yards, 22 TDs), who was out due to a dislocated ankle and a broken fibula suffered last week against Connersville during the sectional semifinals.
With backup junior quarterback Eli Cooper getting his first varsity start, the feisty Trojans scored twice in roughly two-and-a-half minutes late in the second quarter and chopped the deficit down, 21-14.
Three penalties against the Marauders on the Trojans’ first scoring drive supplied New Castle with 40 yards during its 7-play series that covered 80 yards.
Cooper, who proved elusive in spurts, slipped away from the Marauders periodically with his scrambling ability and connected with a wide-open Aiden Bradley to narrow the margin 21-7 behind a 25-yard pass completion with 3:46 left in the half.
After a three-and-out — the Marauders’ third of four in the first half — Slunaker overthrew a pass and was picked off by Jace Logston, who returned the pick 60 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-14 with 1:21 until the break.
“They played really hard. They had a lot of emotion with losing their quarterback last week, and they had some kids that were out the first time we played them due to quarantine back tonight,” Mt. Vernon head coach Mike Kirschner said. “They practice, too, and they came in here being the first time ever in a sectional championship, so this was a big deal to them. That was an impressive effort.”
Cooper completed 9 of 29 pass attempts for 158 yards, a touchdown and an interception with a few ill-timed drops just shorting him of more.
Mt. Vernon’s defense kept the Trojans’ running game hemmed up with a mere 2 yards on 24 carries in the game. The Marauders limited New Castle to five third-down conversions in 15 tries overall, but Cooper stepped up as a surprising playmaker.
Once the second half started, however, Slunaker reclaimed the moniker.
“We knew we weren’t us. We were trying to do too much, and we weren’t playing Mt. Vernon football,” Slunaker said. “We knew we just had to get back to doing the basics right and just relax. We were getting too worried about the little things that were going wrong.”
Slunaker was a calming force in the second half for the unbeaten Marauders (12-0).
The junior standout threw for 44 yards in the first 24 minutes but finished with 178 yards on 14 of 22 attempts and rushed for 26 yards overall on five carries.
“We just needed to flip the page, and that’s been our thing all year,” Slunaker said. “If something goes wrong, just turn the page. No one has ever played a perfect game in football, so you just have to move on and move to the next play.”
The next play was the Marauders’ first series in the third quarter.
Mt. Vernon drove for nearly five minutes, covering 70 yards on 13 plays to reestablish its lead as Slunaker connected with senior Tanner Koziol for a 13-yard touchdown pass.
Slunaker struck again on Mt. Vernon’s next possession with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Ashden Gentry, which he followed up with a 2-point conversion completion to Koziol to increase the lead 35-14.
“Last year, we were down 7-0 to Pendleton (Heights in the sectional final) at the half, so we’ve been in tough situations before, and it definitely helped guide us through this time,” Slunaker said. “We knew what we could do, so we were able to relax.”
Slunaker put the Marauders at ease on first-and-10 from Mt. Vernon’s 29-yard line with 11:09 left in the game.
Dropping back and hitting Ronnie Foster in stride up the middle, the senior wide receiver sprinted 71 yards for a back-breaking touchdown, 42-14.
During the regular season, Mt. Vernon defeated New Castle, 48-6, at home on Oct. 2, en route to an outright Hoosier Heritage Conference championship two weeks later.
“We didn’t play particularly well, and I wasn’t happy with our focus, but I was real happy the way we came out and played the third and fourth quarter,” Kirschner said. “We started doing what we do best. We came out and took care of business. We scored two really quick ones, and we got the big pass play to Ronnie Foster.”
The Mt. Vernon defense attacked with three of its four sacks in the second half and a received a crucial interception by Eli Bridenthal off Cooper, which corrected a Cole lost fumble on second-and-goal at New Castle’s 3-yard line.
The fourth-quarter fumble recovered by Jarmorion Taylor put the Trojans on their own 5 before Bridenthal nabbed the Mt. Vernon’s 14th interception this season on a second-and-6 passing play from New Castle’s 9.
The Marauders’ defense had logged 45 sacks prior to kickoff during their on-going single-season record-setting winning streak.
Bridenthal’s pick put Mt. Vernon in prime position at New Castle’s 1, which Slunaker used to sneak in to put the game away, 49-14, and initate a running clock with 6:41 remaining.
“One of the toughest things to do in all of high school sports is to win a sectional in football. It’s three weeks long, three full games. Basketball plays three full games in a week, but it’s not the same physical pounding and trying to keep kids healthy,” Kirschner said. “It may be the toughest thing to do, and during the pandemic.”
Foster led all Mt. Vernon receivers with 85 yards on two receptions, while Cole had 40 yards on four catches and Gentry finished with 38 yards. Cole rushed for 79 yards on 14 carries.
New Castle scored on its final drive as Cooper found Quintin Boatright behind a 43-yard bomb to the end zone with 51.6 left on fourth-and-17 from Mt. Vernon’s 43.
But, it was too little too late with Mt. Vernon already set to move onto their second straight regional appearance against No. 4 Roncalli (10-1) next week.
The Marauders beat the Rebels 25-17 in 2019 to claim their first-ever regional title.
“We have practice (today) at 8:30 (a.m.), and we’re starting Roncalli film,” La Belle said. “It’s starting (today).”
The Marauders will host Roncalli for a second straight postseason with their sights set on another run at semistate after losing 28-3 to Evansville Memorial last November in the final four.
The home game marks the Marauders’ first since Oct. 9 against Shelbyville.
“We’re moving on. We want to play a whole lot better. We have to play better next week because you can’t do this next week. You can’t play around for a half and hope to turn it on,” Kirschner said. “So, we’ll see how we respond.”
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Scoreline” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
Mt. Vernon 49, New Castle 20
MV – Keagan La Belle 2 yd run (A.J. Swingle kick), 6:27
MV – La Belle 3 yd run (Swingle kick), 11:55
MV – Rylan Cole 1 yd run (Swingle kick), 5:09
NC – Aiden Bradley 25 yd pass from Eli Cooper (Thurlow kick), 3:46
NC – Jace Logston 60 yd INT return (Thurlow kick), 1:21
MV – Tanner Koziol 13 yd pass from Gehrig Slunaker (kick failed), 5:13
MV – Ashden Gentry 8 yd pass from Slunaker (2pt good), 1:37
MV – Ronnie Foster 71 yd pass from Slunaker (Swingle kick), 10:58
MV – Slunaker 1 yd run (Joel Ratliff kick), 6:41
NC – Quintin Boatright 43 yd pass from Cooper (2pt failed), 51.6