FORTVILLE — To win a third straight sectional championship, the Mt. Vernon girls’ basketball team had a long way to go.

Graduation of some key seniors from the 2022 title team left some big holes to fill, and though there were talented players returning, the summer version of the Marauders’ team didn’t look like it was on the cusp of cutting down nets or raising trophies anytime soon.

In the summer, the team played 15 games and lost every one of them.

Fast forward to February, the Marauders are 19-6, undefeated (7-0) Hoosier Heritage Conference champions and, for the third straight year, winners of Class 4A Sectional 9.

“Buying into defense,” head coach Julie Shelton said as a key to the turnaround from preseason to regular season. “I always expect some jump when the season gets here. It’s hard to get on kids for not playing defense in the summertime, because it’s not as serious. I always expect a little bit of a jump when we get our defense in and I hold them accountable, but the other big things were the experience, buying in, and the improvement of kids that had not had a lot of varsity experience.”

Junior Ellery Minch was the only full-time returning starter. Junior Easton Wampler and senior Khloe Patterson started some games a year ago. Wampler was a starter at the end of the season, while Patterson,who started early in the season, was usually the first player coming off the bench.

Current starters Kanyonrae Kenny and Kaitlyn Laffey were predominantly junior varsity players with limited varsity playing time.

All five have had games this season where they’ve been the team’s leading scorer, showing the capabilities of putting a 15-point game, or more, together on a given night.

I think it’s all buy-in,” Minch said on turning a winless summer into a winning winter. “We’ve really bought into coach Shelton, (assistant) coach (Tom) Kirby and the rest of the staff, but more importantly we’ve bought into each other. We’ve all built off each other and trust each other. We’ve put in a lot of work since those games in the summer.”

Still, even though it’s the summer, zero wins is a little rough on a program that has a long history of success.

“I won’t lie, I was a little nervous, but I’ve always trusted coach Shelton,” Minch said. “She’s a great coach. I knew we wouldn’t be terrible, but I did have some worries about losing so many people and the ability to get everyone bought in like we have been, which is fantastic. Coach Shelton has done a really good job of getting us all ready and prepared to do what we did and to have a chance to win the regional.”

“I didn’t expect us to go winless over the summer. I thought we had a lot of potential to be a really good team if we just stuck to what we were taught,” Patterson, one of only two seniors on this year’s team, said. I’m not entirely surprised, but I still think we can do way better.”

Defense has been a staple of Shelton and her success as a head coach. She’s won 368 games, a state championship (2013) and multiple sectional and conference titles.

This season the team is giving up just 35.72 points per game, 33rd overall in the state and fifth-best in Class 4A.

The Marauders have won 10 of their last 11 and are on a seven-game winning streak. During the seven-game stretch, no opponent has scored more than 34 points. The only team to score more during the last 11 was 2022 Class 4A state champion Noblesville a 62-37 winner over Mt. Vernon on Jan. 10.

In 25 games, only seven teams have scored 40 points or more, three of those came in the first three games of the season. Another was in game No. 6 and the last one, before the Noblesville game, was in overtime in late December.

“We really didn’t have an offense (in the summer) and weren’t yet locked into our defense yet,” Patterson added on the preseason struggles and changes once the regular season got going. “Since the season started, it’s just been following the coach’s game plan and just do what she says. It’s that easy. Especially, our defense, that’s what she preaches the most.”

Shelton said during a two-plus week stretch of the season that saw the team defeat East Central (48-25 on Nov. 26), Pendleton Heights (50-38 on Dec. 3) and New Palestine (54-28 on Dec. 13), she knew there was a chance the Marauders could be pretty good.

“It was defense and handling the ball, offensively,” Shelton said of the improvements that led to the team’s best performances. “Early, our first several games, we gave Rushville 50 points. We were giving up quite a few points early. Warren Central scored 67 and even though we beat Whiteland (59-45), they scored quite a few.

“The summer and our first three weeks, defensively, we were not doing real well. We weren’t great the first Pendleton game, but when we held New Pal and East Central under 30, I thought, we’re starting to figure this out.”

The team has a chance, with a victory Saturday, to be the winningest of the team’s three-straight sectional title clubs. They have two more wins than last season (17-9) and the exact record of the 2020-21 team going into Saturday’s 4 p.m. regional matchup against Ben Davis (17-9) at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis.

It’s a rematch of last year’s regional semifinal game won by the Giants, 53-49.

“It’s super-exciting for me to see the growth they’ve had and just the buy-in and how much fun they’ve had getting better and trying to learn and be good teammates,” Shelton said. “It’s been a fun year.”

Class 4A Regional 6 Championship

Time: 4 p.m., Saturday

Site: Decatur Central High School, David “Doc” Rather Gymnasium, Indianapolis

Information: All tickets are digital. Cost is $10. Spectators should park on the south end of the school closest to the football field (Devere Fair Stadium) and enter Door No. 16.

Note: So it would not conflict with the girls regional game, the time for Saturday’s Mt. Vernon home boys basketball game against Pike has been moved up. The junior varsity game will start at 11 a.m. with the varsity to start at, approximately, 12:30 p.m.