STATE FINALS NOTEBOOK: Marauders’ quarterback Slunaker wins Eskew Mental Attitude Award

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Mt. Vernon head coach Vince Lidy, left, congratulates Gehrig Slunaker after the Marauders’ quarterback won the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award. “This has nothing to do with me,” Slunaker said of the award. “Everyone has put me in the right spot to be who I am today.”

INDIANAPOLIS — The state trophy was raised with teammates later, but Gehrig Slunaker’s first honor after helping lead Mt. Vernon High School to its first football state title was celebrated with family.

Shortly after the Marauders 45-14 win over Northridge to win the Class 4A state championship at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday, Slunaker was named the recipient of the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award.

The award is given to a senior state finalist that excels in mental attitude, athletic ability, scholarship and leadership during their four years in high school.

“This is amazing, but this isn’t me,” Slunaker said after accepting the award before joining his teammates to receive state championship medals. “This is my teammates, my coaches and my parents. This has nothing to do with me. Everyone has put me in the right spot to be who I am today. I thank the Lord. I thank everyone for allowing me to get here.

“It means everything. It doesn’t matter how good an athlete you are; if you’re not a good person it ultimately doesn’t mean anything. I’m more proud of my teammates allowing me get to this point and helping me become the player I am today.”

Slunaker’s parents, Jeff and Jeni Slunaker, joined their son for the postgame presentation.

“I’ve been proud of him his whole life. He (exemplifies) this award,” Jeff said. “He is so courteous and so kind to everyone he comes across. He shows compassion for younger players. It means the world. The state championship is awesome, but this is a proud moment.”

“I couldn’t be more proud watching him play football through the years, but more so becoming the man every parent would be proud to have,” Jeni added.

On the field, Slunaker capped off his career with another three-touchdown performance. He had eight of them this season. He also broke the 3,000-yard passing mark for the season after going 12 of 18 for 235 yards in Saturday’s win.

For the season, he completed 147 of 214 passes (68.7 percent) for 3,028 yards, 34 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

His three touchdowns on Saturday came to three different receivers, George Burhenn (11 yards), Eli Bridental (44 yards) and Ashden Gentry (22 yards). This season, eight different players caught touchdown passes.

“He’s a great kid. I’ve known him since fifth, sixth grade when I played on Team Indiana with him,” Gentry said. “I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in Indiana. I’m glad our last reception together ended up in a touchdown.”

Gentry was Slunaker’s favorite receiver. He caught 55 passes this season for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“(The receivers) make my job easy,” Gehrig said. “(In the championship game) we had a hitch and go and I just throw it up and they just go get it. We had a corner post, I just let my guys go to work and go get it.”

“I also want to give special credit to the offensive line. They give me the time and they block for Keagan (La Belle) to run the ball. They don’t get enough credit, and I love those guys.”

Mt. Vernon head coach Vince Lidy knows a similar feeling.

In 1994, as a player, he won a state title with Castle High School and was named the mental attitude award winner. His dad, John Lidy, was his high school coach.

There was a family connection with this one, too. Slunaker is Lidy’s nephew.

“I’m really proud of him. He’s a no-brainer in terms of getting that award. He had a great senior year and also he’s my nephew,” the head coach said. “I won the same award in 1994 in Class 5A. It’s really special and I’m really proud of him and how he has matured, not only as a football player, but a young man and how he prepares.”

Slunaker’s receivers are glad they have him, too.

“I think we take it for granted (having Slunaker as our quarterback),” Burhenn added. “You don’t always get a great quarterback like that. He worked with us in summer, every off-season. It’s amazing having a guy like that lead our team.”

FIRST TIME CHARM: Mt. Vernon and Northridge were two of three teams in the IHSAA Football State Finals making their first appearance in a state championship game.

The Class 4A competitors and Class 3A champion Gibson Southern, which beat Brebeuf 45-35 Friday, were rookies on the state’s prep football big stage.

Mt. Vernon got to the semi-state round in 2019, losing at Evansville Memorial, 28-3. The Marauders beat Memorial last week, also in Evansville, 42-28, to get to Saturday’s championship game.

Northridge got to the semi-state round in 2014, losing to New Prairie, 28-10. The Raiders beat New Prairie 20-14 in last week’s semi-state to get to the matchup against the Marauders.

“It’s amazing no one can ever take this away from us,” Slunaker said. “I’m so happy for the seniors and everyone on the team. I love this team.”

FIRST TIME JITTERS: Both Marauders and Raiders showed some first-time nerves, too.

In the first half, the teams combined for five turnovers and 13 penalties.

Northridge had a delay of game penalty on its first offensive play.

The Marauders led 26-7 at the break in spite of three turnovers (two interceptions and one lost fumble) and seven penalties for 50 yards. The Raiders were picked off twice and had six penalties for 50 yards.

Two other Marauder penalties were declined, including a holding on a missed two-point conversion on their final first-half score.

A holding penalty called back a 54-yard touchdown run by Gentry on the second play of the game. There was also an illegal shift penalty, which was declined, on the same play.

“We talked about how it is, first game coming out and playing in a big game like this,” coach Lidy said. “Here’s another thing, on the field, you can’t hear anything. Then, I could tell, kids minds are so amped up. They’re trying to tell their body to go before their supposed to. Both sides I thought had some of that. We made a few more mistakes. They made mistakes.

“You watch all the games, the first quarter, it could be a track meet. It could be a penalty-fest. Once we settled in, made a few plays, I liked how we got out to a good lead. I was really pleased with our score before the half. That made me feel better.”

“I think everyone had jitters,” Burhenn added. “It comes with it. I think after the first few plays it was all gone. We just needed to get in a groove.”

Slunaker agreed. Uncharacteristically, he threw two first-half interceptions. He had thrown only three in the first 14 games.

“I would say there were definitely some (nerves),” Slunaker said. “The stadium. The fans. Maybe it got to us a little bit. Once we finally settled down, took a deep breath, we let the game come to us.”

Slunaker said it wasn’t a play on offense that got them settled down, but one made by the Marauders’ defense.

Gentry picked off a pass from Northridge quarterback Tagg Gott and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.

It gave Mt. Vernon a 20-0 lead and time to exhale.

“I know it had nothing to do with the offense, but that kind of let us take a deep breath,” Slunaker said. “All right, the defense has us. They picked us up. Now we can just go out and do our thing.”

The play was made by one of the Marauders who wasn’t experiencing that big-stage nervousness.

“For me, there wasn’t (any jitters) personally, but maybe for a few players there might have been,” Gentry said. “Everyone stepped up when we needed it.”

FIELD POSITION PLUS: The Marauders have been known for having a quick-scoring offense.

For most of Saturday’s championship game, they didn’t have far to travel.

Mt. Vernon’s worst starting field position on the entire game was from its own 35.

The longest drive, yardage-wise, was a four-play 65-yarder in the second half that took only 1:40 off the clock. It culminated with a 54-yard touchdown run by Travon Hegler.

The Marauders scored seven touchdowns. The longest drives, play-wise, were two six-play possessions. Both ended in Keagan LaBelle touchdowns runs.

The opening drive of the game went six plays and was the longest, time-wise, taking 2:23. It covered 55 yards and ended with a 24-yard LaBelle run. The other six-play possession went 58 yards and put an exclamation point on the Marauders’ halftime lead.

Mt. Vernon got the ball back after Northridge’s lone first-half score with under 90 seconds remaining. The 58-yard trip took only 1:07. LaBelle scored on a a 5-yard run with 26 ticks left until the break. It gave Mt. Vernon a 26-7 lead.

Slunaker went 3-for-3 on the drive for 39 yards, all to Gentry. The biggest play was a 22-yarder. LaBelle also had a 14-yard run.

In the second half, Mt. Vernon’s first possession started at the Northridge 39. After a delay of game penalty kicked them back five yards, Slunaker connected with Eli Bridenthal on a 44-yard touchdown pass.

“(The field position) helps a lot more than we think,” Burhenn said. “Every drive we had that we scored was under 10 plays. It plays a big part.”

“It’s huge,” coach Lidy added. “Any time you give us a short field as fast as we are, we really like how we can go out and get on people. We attack on offense. We attack on defense. We attack on special teams. We were trying to find ways to get them behind the chains, behind the scoreboard.”

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