FORTVILLE — Managing heightening expectations and major roster turnover — just two of the struggles Mt. Vernon faces in their vie to repeat as state champions.
Last season, under first-year head coach Vince Lidy, the Marauders made easy work of their schedule following a week one 48-30 loss to Noblesville. They head into the 2022 season as defending 4A state champions, winners of their last 14 games and atop the Indiana Football Coaches Association preseason poll.
Managing expectations of that caliber isn’t easy, but Lidy is hopeful in the message he’s preached to his team this offseason.
“It’s easy to say that last year’s over and we’ve got to move on, but it’s hard to tell how that message is conveyed,” Lidy said. “The biggest thing is we try to tell them in the offseason that that chapter of football is closed. We’ve just got to get back to preparing ourselves. Even prior to last year’s championship, our expectations haven’t changed.”
The Marauder offense will have a brand new look, as they enter the season with new players at many key positions. Gone from last year’s dominant offense are starting quarterback Gehrig Slunaker, running backs Keagan LaBelle and Travon Hegler and leading wide receiver Ashden Gentry.
Slunaker threw for 3,028 yards and 34 touchdowns, both good enough for the top spot in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, while LaBelle and Hegler combined for 2,405 rushing yards and 43 total touchdowns of their own. Gentry led the conference in receiving yards with 1,271 and caught 13 of Slunaker’s 34 touchdowns.
“You can’t go on and replace the production we lost individually. With Ashden Gentry we lost however many catches. One guy can’t make up for that,” Lidy said. “We’re going to have to have two or three guys that at the end of the year their production matches up with what we lost. “We can’t recruit our players, we just have to develop the kids we have the best we can.”
With those four gone, Mt. Vernon has some major gaps to fill. But for this season, Lidy believes in the mantra of quantity over quality.
“The best thing we’ve got going for us right now is numbers,” Lidy said. “We’re at 110 players, so we’ve got more bodies and players to choose from to plug and play at different spots than we’ve ever had.”
Not all is lost on offense, as the Marauders bring back some established talent with tight end George Burhenn and multi-position Eli Bridenthal, both entering their senior seasons.
Burhenn caught passes for 443 yards and five touchdowns last season. Even with a recent commitment to Purdue University, Lidy isn’t asking anything from Burhenn other than what he’s already seen.
“George has had an unbelievable offseason,” Lidy said. “We’re not looking to him to do anything that he hasn’t done in the past. We know what he can do. He’s such a selfless player where he’s not in it for the yards and touches, and we’re counting on him to be a great leader.”
Bridenthal, who played wide receiver last season, will be the first player under center for the Marauders. Bridenthal has some experience at the quarterback position, playing there throughout middle school and his freshman year. He recently committed to Xavier University to play baseball.
“I think he’s just as good at football as he is baseball and could be a Division-I recruit,” Lidy said. “I think he’s the fastest kid in our conference. Nobody could cover him last year. We just always want to get our best kids on the field somewhere.”
Also getting a look at running the offense will be freshman Luke Ertel, who Lidy said showed a lot of good things in last Friday’s scrimmage.
On defense, the Marauders lose just as many key players. They will see the departure of their top five tacklers from last season – LaBelle with 107, Owen Johnson with 63, Luke Hiner with 61, Max Hayse with 52 and Razhaun Wells with 47. LaBelle’s 107 tackles led the conference. Johnson also added nine sacks to lead the team.
For Mt. Vernon, it’s next man up on the defense side of the ball and all about just finding which guys are going to step up and fill those holes.
“My goal early is we’ve got to figure out this first third of the season,” Lidy said. “We’ve got to figure out where certain guys are going to fit and make plays, and make sure that units that are going to play together are cohesive.”
Winners of 14 straight, Lidy expects this season to be tough right out of the gate when they open the season on the road Friday at 7 p.m. against Noblesville.
“When you play a long time in Indiana football and you win championships, you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. I don’t care who it is,” Lidy said. “I anticipate all our opponents will do everything in their power to beat us because they want to win just as badly as we do, and there’s the extra motivation where you get to prove yourself against the previous year’s state champion.”