The Long Road: Marauders ready for trip to Evansville and a shot at football state finals

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Mt. Vernon reacts after defeating top-ranked Roncalli in the IHSAA Class 4A Regional 11 championship on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. ( Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

FORTVILLE — Familiarity is a given, but that’s as far as it goes tonight for the Mt. Vernon football team.

Set to return to the scene of their 2019 Class 4A semistate championship loss, 28-3, against host Evansville Memorial, Marauders head coach Vince Lidy and his Mt. Vernon players know what to expect beforehand.

There’s a three-plus hour bus ride ahead of them today, beginning with an 11 a.m. departure from Mt. Vernon High School.

From there, the fourth-ranked Marauders (12-1) will receive a police escort out of the parking lot past the districts elementary schools and through downtown Fortville and McCordsville where football supporters and decorated signs await their two-time regional champions.

Packed into a pair of chartered buses, the approximately 100 players and handful of coaches will next trek more than 120 or so miles along their nearly 200-mile, one-way journey to Evansville’s Owen Stadium before they make a pit stop at Washington High School.

A few hours later, despite the time change from eastern standard to central standard, everything will mirror your typical Friday night as they conclude their venture.

However, once the Marauders step onto Enlow Field where they’ll face the eighth-ranked Tigers (11-2) in a semistate rematch, the past remains just that — in the rearview.

“Looking back at the film from two years ago, it’s crazy how far we’ve come,” Mt. Vernon senior quarterback Gehrig Slunaker said. “You look out there, and it’s a lot of the same guys playing. We looked like little kids out there. We were skinny and small. We’ve definitely come a long way.”

Unlike two years ago, the Marauders hope to keep going, all the way to the IHSAA State Finals in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend.

The first time they made the trip to Evansville, the Marauders were true-green underdogs.

After winning their first-ever regional by beating Roncalli and first sectional title in eight years, Slunaker remembers just how unaware the team was of the magnitude surrounding the situation.

In a way, at least.

“At the time, looking back, I should have been (scared), but I was more like, we’re just going out to play football. No one expected us to be there. Same thing with Roncalli. No one expected us to beat them two years ago. We were just going out and having fun,” Slunaker recalled. “We didn’t really know any better.”

Now, they do, but there’s no added pressure. It’s more expectation with a hefty side of motivation. The same fire that burned after losing to Roncalli, 35-14, at regional in 2020, continues to flicker.

It’s taken two years to get back to semistate, and the Marauders have more on their minds then merely showing up.

“It’s big. There’s definitely unfinished business. We kind of want to avenge, if you will, what we did two years ago,” Slunaker said. “We did it last week (against Roncalli). We took care of what happened in 2020, and now we want to take care of what happened in 2019.”

Lidy believes experience will come in handy the second go-around for his upperclassmen, many of whom were there the last time. The venue, which was built in 1926, shouldn’t be as intimidating with its proud grandstand and recent renovations.

The long bus ride southwest of Indianapolis shouldn’t be a factor, nor the memories of yesteryear, which both players and their coach share and hold individually.

“I played at Enlow Field multiple times growing up freshman through senior (at Castle), so I played against all the schools down there,” Lidy reminisced. “Going down to Evansville two years ago was actually the first time, for a football game that I coached, being back on a field that I ever played on.”

Lidy, a 1994 Indiana Mr. Football finalist, starred at quarterback and linebacker for Castle High School under father and head coach John Lidy, an Indiana Football Hall of Famer.

In 1994, Vince Lidy and his team won the 5A state title, and throughout the program’s 12-2 run, the team won at the historic facility, though it was never an easy task.

“I told them two years ago when we went down there, this place is not a fun place to play. People love it down there, and again this is me growing up, but I never enjoyed going over to Enlow Field to play. I didn’t care if it was Bosse, Memorial or Evansville Harrison,” Lidy said. “It’s a pretty unique stadium. The home side is kind of covered, and it has a lot of history in there. A lot of good football has been played there, and it’s changed.”

The modern-day alterations includes field turf, a far cry from Lidy’s high school days.

“When I played there, we played three schools there because all three claimed that as their home field. They didn’t have an astro or field turf back then, so at the end of the year that thing was a dirt track,” Lidy said.

Today, the field plays fast and that suits the state’s highest-scoring offense at 48.92 points per game on average. But, the Marauders aren’t concerned with point totals. They’re more focused on a win.

“We just want to keep doing what we’re doing. Not try to do anything outside of Mt. Vernon football,” Slunaker said. “Two years ago, we were able to move the ball a little bit, but we only came away with three points. Any time we got close, we kind of shut down. So, it’s definitely going to be big to get a lead.”

Even without an advantage, the Marauders have proven to remain in any game.

They trailed against Hancock County and Hoosier Heritage Conference rival New Palestine this regular season before winning big, 49-10, with an IHSAA mercy-rule, running clock. It was their third of an eventual 10 mercy-rule victories this season.

Last week, against top-ranked Roncalli, the Marauders fell behind 7-0 before tying the game with a 12-play, 67-yard drive kicked off by a 15-yard run from senior running back Keagan La Belle, extended by a 17-yard pass from Slunaker to senior Ashden Gentry and capped by senior rusher Travon Hegler’s 1-yard touchdown.

“To me, it’s maturity and being able to handle any kind of adversity. Last Friday for example, we had a turnover, and I messed up on the defensive call, and they took advantage of it. So, we were down 7-0 in the first few minutes, and there was no sulking. The kids were getting themselves fired back up on the sideline,” Lidy said.

“They kept saying, ‘New Pal. They got 10 on us.’ The kids were able to weather that. To their credit, when you’re best players are seniors and they’ve been through the good and the bad and they’ve been able to keep a level head, it helped us battle back. Then, you start hearing the kids say, ‘It’s 0-0.’ That’s not coach led.”

La Belle, Gentry and Slunaker were all part of the 2019 team that finished the season 11-3 before taking another step in 2020 by going 12-1.

Back full circle tonight, the seniors, who have 42 wins to their credit, are eyeing No. 43 for a chance at 44.

“Anytime it’s a win-or-go-home situation, you have to put everything on the table. Give yourself the best chance to win,” Slunaker said. “I think, this team, you never know what’s going to come. You can see a lot of things, and you never know who’s going to step up on any given night.”

Against Roncalli, the Marauders showed their versatility by utilizing their offensive weapons in various ways, including juniors George Burhenn and Eli Bridenthal, while turning to their senior leaders as well.

On paper, the Marauders are considered the favorite based on rankings, but due to the potential wear-and-tear of traveling, some are siding against them.

More fuel to the fire.

“We’re predicted to lose again this week,” Slunaker said. “Traveling three hours, nobody thinks we can do it, so we just want to keep proving people wrong.”

The distance between Mt. Vernon and Enlow Field is the primary reason the Marauders’ itinerary has been scripted out in meticulous detail.

“We have someone driving a big SUV for all our gear. We’re taking two big busses. We have about an hour to get 100 kids and coaches loaded, seating chart made and we’re going to roll out of here,” Lidy said. “Washington High School is going to be suedo Mt. Vernon. That’s our mindset. We’re leaving from the Mt. Vernon parking lot like we’ve done in all of our away games, and we hope to get to Enlow Field between 5 and 5:15, and our first group goes out at 6. And, everything is on our time. I’m not even setting my watch.

“I told the kids. Kickoff is at 7:01, just like it’s been every Friday we’ve had that aren’t a 7:30 kickoff in our conference. We want to keep it as normal as possible and let it loose.”

Normal for the Marauders is 82 touchdowns scored this season with 52 on the ground behind the blocking of offensive linemen Cole Herman, a senior; Kyler Grill, a junior; Roland Tremble, a sophomore; Ben Roembke, a junior, and senior Razhaun Wells.

“They’re huge. They make my everyone’s job easy. They don’t get talked about enough,” Slunaker said. “Losing three of our five linemen from last year, everyone said, I would be running for my life. It’s not going to be the same, but I think the opposite. I think we’ve gotten better. They had to grow up fast, and they’ve stepped up to the challenge. They give me all day back there, and I love each and every one of them.”

If things go as planned tonight, the group could have a chance to do more.

“We’re not playing the 2019 Evansville Memorial Tigers. They’re not playing the 2019 Mt. Vernon Marauders. You can’t dwell on those things. It’s 2021, and we have to live in the present,” Lidy said. “When I look at these two teams, I would say it’s like two really good middleweights, like a boxing match, going at it. (Class) 6A would be the heavyweights. It’s going to be a good one with two teams going toe-to-toe.

“They are physical, well coached and disciplined. You go back and two years ago they were state champions. They’ve had a great run for the past seven or eight years, and they’re going to have a packed house as well. So, we have to handle a few things, but that’s why you play the game.”

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