EVANSVILLE — Before his Class 4A fourth-ranked Mt. Vernon Marauders stepped foot on historic Enlow Field for their semistate title game Friday night, head coach Vince Lidy predicted a slugfest between two state contenders.
His prediction came true, as his Marauders (13-1) and eighth-ranked Evansville Memorial Tigers (11-3) never punted in the first half and traded blows.
Until Mt. Vernon senior running back Keagan La Belle and the defense delivered the knockout punches needed to send the Marauders to their first IHSAA state finals.
La Belle rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns, including the only two in the second half, and the defense shut down the host Tigers in the final 24 minutes to secure Mt. Vernon’s 13th consecutive victory, 42-28.
“It definitely feels amazing. Revenge, man. Coming here. Three-hour drive. Sitting on the bus for three hours, a little tired, but we came out and got after it,” La Belle said. “This is amazing, but it’s not going to be as amazing as when we win state next week. My mind is on that week. Celebrate a little bit, but that’s the biggest game I’m ever going to play.”
Two years ago, the Tigers upended the Marauders in the semistate title game, 28-3.
No one wanted a repeat on the Marauders’ sideline.
“I didn’t play football when the seniors were sophomores, but they told me how much they wanted this game. I could tell all week through practice how much they wanted to avenge this game, and we came out here and got the job done,” Mt. Vernon senior Avery Williams said.
In the first half, both teams converted a combined seven offensive touchdowns.
Mt. Vernon trailed by seven points three times after Evansville Memorial opened the game with a nine-play, 50-yard drive that was capped by a 4-yard run from senior Brodie Ray, who finished with 119 yards on 16 carries.
The Tigers led 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 behind two touchdown passes from junior quarterback Caleb Ellspermann, who completed 13 of 25 attempts for 144 yards.
But, the Marauders responded to tie the game at 28-all by halftime.
“We knew what Memorial was going to do. They knew what we were going to do. We came out and it was two middleweights going toe-to-toe. I told our players, when that ball kicks off, we have to answer everything, every time,” Lidy said. “That’s a testament to our coaches and our seniors.”
The Mt. Vernon seniors answered the call with a 39-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Gehrig Slunaker to Ashden Gentry to tie up the game 7-7 in the first quarter.
Next, La Belle knotted it up 14-14 early in the second quarter to end a nine-play, 59-yard drive. A 2-yard touchdown run by senior Travon Hegler in the second quarter made it 21-21 after Ethan Yeley’s PAT.
Then, the defense foreshadowed what was to come.
Neither team punted in the first half and both went a combined 7-for-7 on third down until Williams halted the Tigers’ potential fourth-straight touchdown drive on third-and-2 on Mt. Vernon’s 20.
Ellspermann dropped back to pass, and Williams read the play, snatching an interception before returning the ball 93 yards for Mt. Vernon’s first lead, 28-21.
“A few plays before that, they called a ball on me, and they were starting to pick on me, so I knew I had to do something. They threw it back my way, so I just had to make a play. Get some momentum for our squad, especially since it was going back-and-forth,” Williams said.
“It was stressful in the first half, but I knew we were going to keep our heads up. I knew we would push through it, and in the second half we came through and got the stops we needed. We finished the game off.”
— Rich Torres (@RichTorres23) November 20, 2021
The Tigers added their second rushing touchdown, a 1-yard run by Ellspermann with 1 minute, 10 seconds left in the first half that tied it up, again, 28-28.
“When we went into the locker, a lot like last week, we knew it was 0-0. Always 0-0 when we come out at halftime, and we game planned. We obviously fixed what we needed to fix and we made the stops,” La Belle said.
In the first half, Evansville Memorial rushed for 165 yards on 24 carries and passed for 90 yards. In the second half, the Marauders defense held the Tigers to 16 yards rushing and 54 yards passing.
“In 1994, my senior year (at Castle) we went to Martinsville for regional. We’re a running team and they’re a passing team. It’s 28-28 at halftime. A shootout just like this game. It was a track meet,” Lidy said. “We came out and won the second half 7-0. We shut them out and won 35-28. I told coach (Toby) Jacobs, it’s just like that. We just need to get one stop and go score and we got this thing. One stop turned into two.”
The Tigers punted on three straight possessions and turned the ball over on downs their final three drives on offense.
The Marauders generated 164 yards rushing for the game, while Slunaker completed 17 of 25 passes for 214 yards. Gentry had eight receptions for 111 yards.
La Belle had 92 yards rushing in the second half on 12 carries. His first-half touchdown measured 3 yards. His final two, one in each quarter, went for 17 and 39 yards.
After a pair of punts by the Marauders, La Belle highlighted a three-play series on second-and-3 from the Tigers’ 17 to break the deadlock, 35-28, in the third quarter.
Following a Mt. Vernon turnover on downs early in the fourth, La Belle roared back with a stiff-arming burst that put the Marauders in control of their own destiny.
“Everybody was saying we didn’t have an O-line,” Mt. Vernon senior lineman Razhaun Wells said. “None of our O-line won all-conference, so we’ve just been working, proving and we have to keep working. We have one more.”
La Belle broke one tackle on the his 39-yard run, then another as he sprinted into the end zone with 7:48 left in the game to hand his team a 42-28 advantage.
“Just stay up. Don’t get tackled. Go score,” La Belle said. “That’s it. That’s all I was thinking.”
Now, the Marauders are thinking about their next road trip to the state finals at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis on Saturday, Nov. 27, for the 4A championship.
“The ultimate journey is to win state, and this is just another step in the journey,” Slunaker said. “We have to finish the job next week.”
Mt. Vernon 42, Evansville Memorial 28
MT. VERNON (13-1);7;21;7;7;—;42
EV. MEMORIAL (11-3);14;14;0;0;—;28
EM—Ray Brodie 4 run (Nico Brougham kick), 8:06
MV—Ashden Gentry 39 pass from Gehrig Slunaker (Ethan Yeley kick), 6:37
EM—Dominic Norman 8 pass from Caleb Ellspermann (Brougham kick), 3:36
MV—Keagan La Belle 3 run (Yeley kick), 11:55
EM—Leo Collins 18 pass from Ellspermann (Brougham kick), 9:26
MV—Travon Hegler 2 run (Yeley kick), 6:44
MV—Avery Williams 93 INT return (Yeley kick), 3:55
EM—Ellspermann 1 run (Brougham kick), 1:10
MV—La Belle 17 run (Yeley kick), 4:18
MV—La Belle 39 run (Yeley kick), 7:48