Back in Charge: Marauders split with rival Cougars, reclaim lead in HHC

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FORTVILLE — The Mt. Vernon Marauders hadn’t lost two games in a row all season, and they weren’t about to start a new trend with their Hoosier Heritage Conference title hopes on the line.

Deadlocked atop the HHC standings with defending league champion Greenfield-Central, the Marauders’ bats came back to life Wednesday night to reset the championship race.

On Tuesday night, the Cougars (12-7, 9-3 HHC) evened up the conference standings with an 8-0 win at Molinder Field over the visiting Marauders (16-6, 10-2 HHC). The loss was Mt. Vernon’s second by shutout on the year.

In the HHC series’ finale, the host Marauders reestablished their one-game lead, winning 5-3, behind seven hits and a pair of clutch, two-out RBI singles from sophomore shortstop Eli Bridenthal.

“We didn’t score any runs yesterday, so that was just stabbing at us. We just needed to get a run across the plate, and when we did, we all just locked in as a group and started hitting,” Bridenthal said. “Mentally, I think, we were all just a little pissed off and it showed on the field.”

Bridenthal supplied Mt. Vernon with a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the third, driving in senior Hunter Dobbins, who finished 3-for-3. Bridenthal later repeated the feat in the fifth for a 5-1 advantage.

“Greenfield is a really good team, and you never know what’s going to happen when you play good teams, but we’re pretty good, too. We haven’t really been down two games in a row this whole year, and I felt good that we would come out,” Mt. Vernon head coach Brad King said.

“I felt we would have a better approach at the plate then we did yesterday, and they didn’t disappoint. They did exactly what I expected.”

The Cougars did the same, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the first as senior Carson Gibson (2-for-4) reached base with a one-out single to left field, advancing to second on a ground out, then taking third base on a wild pitch.

The speedy Indiana Wesleyan commit reached home plate on a passed ball with two outs, putting the pressure on Marauders’ starter A.J. Swingle, who responded.

The senior left-hander didn’t allow another hit until the top of the sixth, retiring five in a row at one point, while scattering four walks, five hits and striking out four for the win.

Swingle lasted 6.1 innings before turning it over to the bullpen with the bases loaded and Greenfield-Central threatening in the top of the seventh with one out.

“Finally. It took a long time. Swingle pitched well. He kept us off balance, and we didn’t adjust very well, but at the end, we made some noise,” Greenfield-Central head coach Mark Vail said. “We were pretty opportunistic, and it was a good sign that we put some pressure on them early, then we just couldn’t get the base runners on.”

The Cougars left eight runners on base, including five in scoring position. The final two sat on second and third base in the seventh before reliever Gavin Sullivan earned the save with a strikeout and a fly ball to center field.

“Now, we control our destiny because if we dropped this game, and Greenfield was in control, then we have to have someone else help us out. Now that we’re in first by a game, we can control it,” King said.

That was the goal for the Marauders, who haven’t won the HHC since sharing the title in 2009. Greenfield-Central owns two HHC championships overall (in 2013 and 2019).

The Marauders set their rebound in motion with a two-run bottom of the first. Landon Clark led off with a walk against Cougars’ starter Parker Stanley, and Swingle followed with another free pass.

Dobbins, who is hitting .600 on the year, lined a double to load the bases before senior Joel Walton (2-for-3, two RBI) drove in two runs with a one-out single to left field.

Bridenthal tried to pad the 2-0 lead after Walton, but Stanley struck him out and induced a fly out to end the inning.

“I went down on three straight pitches. I was not pleased. All of them looking, so I just gave myself a mental note that if I was going to go down, it wasn’t going to be looking and I’m at least going to swing at one, and I got a good result out of it,” Bridenthal said.

In the bottom of the third, Bridenthal came through with two outs and Dobbins on third. He took a 1-1 pitch to right-center field to make it 3-1.

In the fifth, he turned on a 0-1 pitch from Stanley to score Dobbins again with two outs, increasing the lead 5-1 after senior Jake Stank plated a run with a sacrifice bunt to make it 4-1.

“Last night, we got the hits we needed and they didn’t. Tonight, it was reverse,” Vail said. “That’s how the game goes. There are no secrets. That’s how the game is won or lost.”

The Cougars had a chance to cut into the deficit in the top of the fourth with two runners on base, but Swingle induced a third-out ground ball to strand them both at first and second.

In the sixth, Greenfield-Central had a runner on first and second with two outs, but Swingle got Conner Sims to ground out at third base for a force out to quiet the potential rally.

“It was a situation where we got our runs, but we knew it wasn’t going to be enough. We’d have to have a great outing by A.J. and then Gavin comes in and gets the save. It’s tense at the end, but we end up with the win. That’s all that matters,” King said.

Greenfield-Central chased Swingle with a walk and two singles to load the bases. Sullivan entered and surrendered a two-run single to Gavin Atwood, but the right-hander shut the Cougars down in the next two at-bats.

“As long as we go out and play well against Yorktown, and if we can get a sweep, we win it outright. If we get a split, then they’ll have to sweep Shelbyville and then we’ll get a split with it, but we want to win it outright,” King said.

The Marauders can win the HHC outright next week during their final two-game conference series against Yorktown, beginning at home on Tuesday.

The Cougars will need a sweep and a Marauders loss to tie for a share of the title. They face Shelbyville in their HHC series finale, starting on the road Tuesday.

“We both still have two weeks left and in this conference, anything can happen. Shelbyville beat them, and that’s who we have. Yorktown beat us and that’s who they have. We know neither of us can just walk in. We don’t have it yet,” Vail said.

What the Marauders do have, however, is the HHC’s traveling bat trophy, which the Cougars claimed earlier this season before losing it Wednesday.

“None of us guys had a clue about that, so senior year, especially after not being able to play last year, it was a better feeling then it would have been any other place,” Swingle said. “Now, it’s ours. We have to keep it, though. We have to win to next week.”