INDIANAPOLIS — The unwritten rule has always been 24 hours.
After every win this season, the Mt. Vernon football team has been allotted exactly 1,440 minutes by the coaching staff to savor each gridiron victory.
That rule no longer applied on Saturday night.
Forever focused on their next opponent and the ensuing stage yet reached, the Marauders had nothing more to conquer with 1:23 remaining in the IHSAA Class 4A state championship game Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
All except one. Victory formation.
And fittingly, Mt. Vernon first-year head coach Vince Lidy reinserted his offensive starters to finish what they began more than three months ago.
“We wanted to make sure we paid dues to those offensive guys. There are a lot of ways to run a program and how you do things. We feel as a coaching staff, if we do things the right way, everyone succeeds,” Lidy said. “Our kids joke about it now, it’s their favorite formation, like their coach, I guess. It was good to see them out there, one last time, so they could come off the field and see the community supporting them.”
A 5A football state champion in 1994 with Castle, a team coached by his late father, John, coach Lidy had two priorities entering Saturday’s state finals meeting with Northridge High School.
First and foremost, win the game. Seize the school’s first football state title. No matter what it takes.
Secondly, make certain to embrace every moment, no restrictions. A regret the former Indiana Mr. Football finalist still carries, looking back, now, 27 years in the past since Castle hoisted the ‘94 state championship trophy inside the RCA Dome.
He reminded his Marauders of both a few hours before senior quarterback Gehrig Slunaker, Lidy’s nephew, was announced as the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award recipient for Class 4A football and threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the state title game.
And more so, days prior to Mt. Vernon’s wire-to-wire, seven-touchdown dominance of Northridge, which cemented a decisive 45-14 victory in the Marauders’ first state-finals appearance.
Lidy instructed his Marauders to aim high, stick together and don’t forget to look up into the seats at the sea of black, gold and white.
As Slunaker knelt the ball twice to run out the final 83 seconds, the crowd’s roar grew louder behind the Marauders’ bench, while the celebration commenced on the sideline among the Mt. Vernon coaches, who amusingly call themselves an “island of misfit toys.”
Once the final horn sounded, Mt. Vernon senior linebacker Max Hayse sprinted to midfield, then turned immediately toward the Marauders Mob in section 137, followed closely by a skipping and elated Slunaker, who whipped the student section into a frenzy with his teammates behind him.
— Rich Torres (@RichTorres23) November 28, 2021
The journey was complete for the senior-led Marauders (14-1), who upheld their moniker as the state’s top-scoring offense and put their coach in the history books as the fifth first-year coach and third father-son combination to win a state title.
“I’ll picture that moment forever. Hearing the crowd go wild. They were going wild the whole night. It was amazing,” Slunaker said. “Coach Lidy, he played in the state championship in 1994, and he said, the one thing he regretted was not taking in every moment. That was the thing we focused on this week. We took in every moment this week, practicing here, the support and every play. When we ran out on the field to start the game, we took in the crowd and we did at the end. I thank coach for allowing us to do that.”
Winning a state title isn’t easy. Neither is reaching the season’s 15th week. Something the Marauders know firsthand after falling short in 2019 at semistate to eventual state champion Evansville Memorial and later at regional in 2020 to state champion Roncalli.
Against Northridge, the Marauders made victory appear effortless, flipping an 0-1 start to the season into a 14-game, championship winning streak while knocking off both of their past postseason nemeses along the way.
The Marauders’ march towards immortality began on Aug. 27 and concluded with the senior class’s 44th victory in four years, but the true starting point goes back even further, more than a decade, when a majority of the players competed and bonded in the Mt. Vernon Youth Football League.
Much like they learned in their youth, collectively, they were strong enough to rise as one. Individually, they were even better when they played unselfishly.
The finals stats echoed their approach.
Five different Marauders scored at least one of the team’s six offensive touchdown, as Mt. Vernon’s offense generated 381 yards in 19:36 behind 50 plays.
The running game netted 146 yards in 31 attempts, led by senior Keagan La Belle’s 76 and two touchdowns. Senior running back Travon Hegler had 77 yards and the team’s final touchdown, a 54-yard breakaway, to put Mt. Vernon ahead by 35 points early in the fourth quarter, 45-7 — the program’s 11th time reaching the IHSAA’s mercy-rule margin.
“Just a normal football game. Get the ball to the playmakers. Get them in open space and they’ll make plays,” La Belle said. “Scoreboard shows itself, and that’s what it showed today.”
Slunaker completed 12 of 18 passes and connected with junior George Burhenn for an 11-yard score in the first quarter, junior Eli Bridenthal for a 44-yard touchdown and senior Ashden Gentry for a 22-yarder in the third.
“Honestly, it’s the seniors. The senior class stepped up. The O-line stepped up. Everyone on this team deserves every little bit of anything they get. This is the best team we’ve had in Mt. Vernon history, and the best senior class we’ve had in Mt. Vernon history,” La Belle said. “We’re going down in the books, and I’m glad it was us.”
La Belle put the inevitable in motion by highlighting the Marauders’ game-opening, offensive series with a 24-yard touchdown run to cap a six-play, 55-yard drive.
The Marauders built a 20-0 lead by the second quarter and established a 26-7 advantage by halftime despite the magnitude of the moment.
“It felt unreal. It kind of went quiet (on that first TD). Right when I hit the end zone, I was just in my own zone and looked around and could see the people cheering, but it was like I couldn’t really hear them in my head,” La Belle said. “It was so unreal it didn’t process, but later in the game, it processed through me and it’s definitely time to celebrate. I’m a happy guy.”
— Rich Torres (@RichTorres23) November 28, 2021
The Marauders defense ultimately calmed everyone’s nerves.
Whistled for seven of their 12 penalties in the first half, the Marauders’ offense had some potential big plays called back, including a 54-yard run by Gentry on the opening series.
However, as Northridge picked off Slunaker twice in the first half and recovered a fumble by Bridenthal late in the first quarter, the defense dug in to keep the game out of reach.
Bridenthal almost made up for his mishap on the ensuing series with a near-pick against Northridge quarterback Tagg Gott on second-and-16 from Mt. Vernon’s 43.
Burhenn followed up the potential game-changing play with an interception on third down before Gentry later shifted the momentum on Northridge’s next possession with a 59-yard pick-six to put Mt. Vernon ahead 20-0.
“I felt like our defense was on its heels a little bit there, and to make that big play was huge for the team,” Gentry said. “I’m really glad that I did.”
La Belle’s second touchdown run, measuring 5 yards late in the second quarter, put the pressure on Northridge, who failed to convert with 26 ticks left in the first half, down 26-7. The Raiders (10-5) were set to begin the second half with the ball.
In the first half, Northridge rushed for 103 yards and passed for 53 with 11 first downs.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to in the first half, and we knew we could have been up more, but they’ve been down in the tournament. They’ve been down at halftime, and we knew they had the ability to come back, so we didn’t want to let that happen to us,” Slunaker said. “We just wanted to finish it off the right way.”
The defense answered the bell.
In the second half, Northridge was held to negative-11 rushing yards and passed for 32 with only two first downs the rest of the way. The Marauders recorded five sacks in the game. Two went to senior defensive tackle Owen Johnson and one each to La Belle, Jaden Gibson and Ashton Julian.
Mt. Vernon hurried Gott five times, with two going to Hayse, while Johnson had 4.5 of the Marauders’ 11 tackles for a loss. Gott completed 8 of 26 pass attempts and rushed for a team-high 86 yards. The Raiders were 4 of 17 on third downs.
“No game compares to this at all,” Hayse said. “That crowd fired me up. I know it fired up a lot of other people, too. We couldn’t do what we do or have what we have without those fans. They’re amazing. Our student section is awesome, and they’re just so loud. It drives you. It makes you go.”
Mt. Vernon scored on three of its first four, second-half possessions as Slunaker passed for 114 yards and two touchdowns before the starters were lifted with 10:07 left in the game. The Marauders averaged 48.4 points per game this season and only needed 16 first downs to surpass the 40-point mark.
“It was an adrenaline rush the whole time. I think, we knew, if we came out strong like we did, then we knew we had a good shot at taking it,” Burhenn said. “These last few weeks have been tough, so we knew we could battle adversity and hang in there. That (final series) was the best feeling, looking over at the crowd, seeing everyone.”
One of the first players to hold the state championship trophy, Slunaker was the last to leave the field, posing for selfies with fans as he headed for the tunnel.
“It’s amazing to finally say, we won, and now, we’re going to celebrate forever. We get to hold on to this for the rest of our lives. No one can ever take this away from us,” Slunaker said. “We have nothing more ahead of us. Normally, I’m used to saying, we got to look forward to next week. We have to get better, but this is amazing. The journey is complete, and I’ll never forget this.”
2021 IHSAA Class 4A Football State Championship
Mt. Vernon 45, Northridge 14
Mt. Vernon (14-1);14;12;12;7;—;45
MV—Keagan La Belle 24 run (kick failed), 9:37
MV—George Burhenn 11 pass from Gehrig Slunaker (2pt run), 4:35
MV—Ashden Gentry 59 INT return (kick failed), 8:06
N—Jethro Hochstetler 23 pass from Tagg Gott (Dylan Ritchie kick), 1:39
MV—La Belle 5 run (2pt failed), 0:26
MV—Eli Bridenthal 44 pass from Slunaker (kick failed), 10:29
MV—Gentry 22 pass from Slunaker (2pt failed), 2:23
MV—Travon Hegler 54 run (Ethan Yeley kick), 11:30
N—Peyton Shook 45 yd INT return (Ritchie kick), 8:38