Turning the Page: Marauders cruise past rival Cougars in HHC opener

Mt. Vernon's George Burhenn (81) jumps up to make a catch for a touchdown in front of two Greenfield-Central defenders on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Rob Baker/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Nothing was routine, but the Class 4A tenth-ranked Mt. Vernon Marauders didn’t treat the scenario any differently.

With their Hoosier Heritage Conference season opener against rival 4A Greenfield-Central pushed back a day, it was business as usual for the visiting Marauders on Saturday night.

Quarterback Gehrig Slunaker passed for 130 yards and three touchdowns, while Mt. Vernon’s rushing attack accounted for 191 yards and three more scores as the Marauders rolled to a 42-21 victory.

The win pushed Mt. Vernon’s current streak to two in a row this season and four straight over its Hancock County, conference and Sectional 21 foe.

“Not only this team, not only this game, just any game, we want to go out and prove a point,” Slunaker remarked after the Marauders improved to 2-0 on the season and 1-0 in the HHC. “We want to prove that we’re the same team as last year. We can be better than that. We’re excited.”

A year after securing their first HHC title since 2012, the Marauders are in repeat mode, and it showed despite consistent rainfall and Greenfield-Central’s, at times, problematic option offense.

The Marauders, who defeated the Cougars (1-2, 0-1 HHC), 35-6, at home last season, capitalized on Greenfield-Central’s miscues Saturday night, while the offense ran wild, establishing a 42-0 lead early on in the third quarter.

“It makes it easier on me, for sure, getting that running game going,” Slunaker said. “I love my offensive line. I love my guys, my weapons. Makes it really easy on me.”

An extra day to prepare and get back to full strength did wonders for the Marauders, who welcomed the return of a key piece to their backfield against the Cougars.

With senior Travon Hagler back in the fold, the Marauders kept the Cougars’ defense honest and executed both between the tackles and through the air.

The game was originally scheduled for Friday night, but similar to last year’s COVID-19 contact tracing situation, which delayed Greenfield-Central’s 2020 season by two weeks, the Marauders were provided an additional day to clear practice requirements to fill out their roster.

In 2020, Mt. Vernon moved their Week 3 game against Greenfield-Central to Saturday as the Cougars made their way back from quarantine protocols.

“We canceled our JV and freshman game against Franklin because we didn’t have enough freshman and we played so many JV kids against Franklin (on Aug. 27),” Mt. Vernon head coach Vince Lidy said. “Greenfield, very graciously, worked with us because we had to get so many practices in to get back.”

While a positive compromise that helped avoid a cancellation, the notion of a longer than usual build up did concern Lidy and his staff slightly.

The Marauders, however, quieted those concerns by taking a 21-0 lead after the first quarter and a 35-0 lead by halftime, which kicked off the IHSAA mercy-rule running clock in the second half.

“Our kids did a great job. We had four really good days of practice, and coming out on a Saturday, when you hang around all day, you don’t know how they’re going to react. It’s out of routine,” Lidy said. “We got in and got a good warm up and we came out and executed and our game plan, we executed very well for the first half.”

A botched punt snap in the first quarter by Greenfield-Central foreshadowed the next 21-plus minutes before the break as Mt. Vernon utilized several short fields to break the game open.

Hagler, who rushed for a game-high 108 yards on six carries, dove into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown with 8:22 left in the first quarter.

Slunaker made the Cougars pay on the Marauders’ next possession with a 33-yard connection to Ashden Gentry that put Mt. Vernon in front 14-0 with just 6:46 spent off the clock.

“It was kind of weird (playing on Saturday), but the preparation with practices, it kind of led up the same. It felt like a Friday night,” Slunaker said.

Slunaker’s protection up front allowed the former Greenfield-Central product to play his game and gave his targets time to find ample space.

Hagler’s longest run, a 66-yard touchdown on first-and-10 from Mt. Vernon’s 34 increased the lead to 21-0 before the second quarter.

The Mt. Vernon defense shut down the Cougars with three turnover on downs in the first half and a trio of punts with two poor snaps.

“Wet ball, bad situation. We had two bad punt snaps which hurt us and put us in a bad situation there, and then in those situations, we have to play harder and fix those mental mistakes like bad punt snaps or miscues defensively,” Greenfield-Central head coach Travis Nolting said.

“We have to come out and play harder the whole game. We can’t just come out and do it in the second half. We have to do it the whole game, so 48 minutes of football.”

The first 24 and some change belonged to Mt. Vernon, who found the end zone five times before adding a sixth to open the second half on a 33-yard rushing touchdown by senior running back Keagan La Belle.

La Belle gained 56 yards on three carries and had 56 yards on one reception for a touchdown that made it 28-0 with 9:53 remaining before halftime.

“(Hagler) was out last week, so we wanted to get him back, get him some touches, and he’s very dynamic, explosive,” Lidy said. “We also know what Keagan can do. Now, that presents problems on defense because of numbers in the box. We have skill and speed on the outside and a quarterback who can throw every high school ball we need to throw. We have the ability to find match-ups, if we can protect.”

Slunaker connected with four different receivers and three of his completions went for touchdowns, including a 25-yard strike to junior George Burhenn that gave Mt. Vernon a 35-0 cushion with 3:31 left in the first half.

“It was a 42-21 win, but there are still mistakes we have to clean up. We have to hit practice hard again this week,” Slunaker said. “Some people don’t think we can be the same team because we have different guys in here, so we’re just trying to prove every week that we’re still Mt. Vernon.”

The Mt. Vernon defense echoed that message until the second half as several starters were substituted out, which gave the Cougars a chance to erase the shutout bid.

G-C quarterback Brodie Mayberry ran for 86 yards by game’s end, while Brayden Herrell had a team-high 100 yards on 12 carries.

Owen Anderson scored the Cougars’ first rushing touchdown from 6 yards out to cap a 14-play drive in the third quarter that was assisted by two Marauders’ penalties for first downs.

Andrew Zellers had the Cougars’ second rushing touchdown at 5 yards to cut the deficit 42-14 in the fourth quarter. Zellers finished with 48 yards on 20 carries.

Joey Roland churned for 59 yards and a 29-yard rushing touchdown. Greenfield-Central had 301 yards rushing in the game.

Their one shot at a passing touchdown was halted by the Marauders’ defense with seconds remaining in the first half.

Greenfield-Central drove from their own 19 to Mt. Vernon’s 16 and nearly converted a fourth-and-5 situation as Mayberry found Brady Durnell at the pylon.

Durnell secured the catch, but the officials ruled him out of bounds at the 1-inch mark, turning the ball over on downs before Mt. Vernon knelt to run out the final remaining 9.1 seconds.

“There’s a lot of pride because this is their Super Bowl for Greenfield. They come with a lot of pep in their step, and it means a lot to win,” Slunaker said.

For the Marauders, there’s more than pride on the line now that the HHC season has begun. Each week, they’re defending their title and this Friday, the HHC helmet trophy and Boundary Rail will be at stake against rival New Palestine.

Mt. Vernon defeated New Palestine 35-22 at home in 2020 to claim both prizes. This week, they travel to Kelso Stadium days after the Dragons posted their first win of the season over HHC foe Yorktown.

The Dragons’ loss to the Marauders last year marked their first in the annual rivalry since getting swept in both their regular-season and sectional meetings in 2012.

“I like where we’re at. We have a shorter weekend now, obviously, so we have to have a great week of preparation for New Pal,” Lidy said. “That starts (Monday).

“I look forward to Friday night. You’re going to see two teams that have pretty good skill. They’re going to mirror each other really well on offense that could put points up in a hurry or chew up some yards.”

Greenfield-Central travels to Pendleton Heights this week for another shot at a HHC win.

Mt. Vernon 42, Greenfield-Central 21

MT. VERNON (2-1, 1-0);21;14;7;0;—;42

GREENFIELD-CENTRAL (1-2, 0-1);0;0;7;14;—;21

MV—Travon Hagler 1 run (Ethan Yeley kick), 8:22

MV—Ashden Gentry 33 pass from Gehrig Slunaker (Yeley kick), 5:14

MV—Hagler 66 run (Yeley kick), 1:34

MV—Keagan La Belle 56 pass from Slunaker (Yeley kick), 9:53

MV—George Burhenn 25 pass from Slunaker (Yeley kick), 3:31

MV—La Belle 33 run (Yeley kick), 9:44

GC—Owen Anderson 6 run (Logan Masters kick), 59.8

GC—Andrew Zellers 5 run (Masters kick), 6:56

GC—Joey Roland 29 run (Masters kick), 58.2