By Rich Torres and Jim Ayello

Daily Reporter sports staff

Daily Reporter sports editor Rich Torres and sportswriter Jim Ayello select their favorite players, teams and moments from the 2014-15 high school sports year.

Best Female Athlete

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Rich: Olivia Coleman

You hear about it all the time. I’ve seen it happen a few times in my career. Not even professional athletes are immune. An athlete soars to elite status, destined to be one of the best ever, then it comes to a grinding halt because of the four worst words in sports: anterior cruciate ligament tear. Fortunately for Hancock County and Mt. Vernon sports fans, Olivia Coleman isn’t one to cower in the face of adversity. Battling back from her injury two years ago, the multi-sport standout never fell off track, coming back strong to earn conference, state and Daily Reporter distinctions in soccer, basketball and track. The recently graduated Marauder capped her impressive four-year prep career with a long-awaited return to the IHSAA track state meet after becoming all-state as a freshman. Placing sixth in the long jump this past spring (and shattering the program record, yet again, at 18 feet, 6 inches), Coleman left Mt. Vernon a two-time all-state track athlete and the record holder in three events, including the 200- and 400-meter dash. For good measure, the IPFW commit scored a career-best and school record for points amassed at 780. For her achievements, Coleman competed in the prestigious Midwest Meet of Champions last month.

Jim: Regan Elsea

From now on, whenever I hear the phrase, “saving the best for last,” I will think of New Palestine gymnast Regan Elsea. The recently graduated Dragon waited until the state finals to unleash the single greatest performance in New Palestine gymnastics history. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Elsea’s 37.825 at Ball State this past March was the best all-around score in Dragons history and good for third in state this year. She finished second in the vault (9.675) and third on the balance beam (9.425), an event that had been her kryptonite all season. Elsea’s magnificent performance helped lead New Palestine to a sixth-place finish as a team, the best in the Jenny Musselman era (2008-15) and tied for the best in program history (2004). She also helped the Dragons achieve the single highest score in program history (109.85) at the Columbus East Regional.

Best Breakout Performance

Rich: Kaycee Ruble

No matter whom I spoke to this track and field postseason, the same comment was eventually offered when describing Eastern Hancock’s Kaycee Ruble. “She’s a natural,” her coaches proudly remarked followed by the equally emphasized fact, “and she’s only a junior.” Becoming the school’s first all-state track athlete this past spring, Ruble placed seventh in the shot put with a school record-setting toss of 40 feet, 1.5 inches at the IHSAA state meet in Bloomington. More impressive is how her meteoric ascent began. Taking up the sport by happenstance in junior high school, Ruble excelled immediately. As a freshman and a sophomore, she qualified for the regional with back-to-back third-place finishes at sectional. As a junior, she broke through, rewriting the school record at every level in the state tournament. Ruble won her first career sectional and regional titles, and at state, she powered into the top-five at one point en route to securing all-state honors.

Jim: Oliver Mast

You just knew Oliver Mast was primed to do something special this season. After winning a sectional championship in his freshman season at Mt. Vernon, the Marauders golfer delivered a special encore this season. In just his second campaign competing at the prep level, Mast earned a state finals berth by shooting at meet-best 73 at the Muncie Central Regional. Then, at the challenging Prairie View Golf Club Carmel, Mast effectively put the Hoosier golfing world on notice by defeating 40 of Indiana’s best competitors, as he finished tied for 54th overall. He was one of only 14 underclassmen to finish in the top 60 and again looks primed to take another major jump next season.

Best Boys Coach

Rich: Kyle Ralph

While still a relative newbie to the Hancock County sports scene, I knew about coach Kyle Ralph long before I set up shop here at the Daily Reporter. Good news travels fast, and when he was hired two years ago, mostly everyone’s interests were peaked. How long would it take for him to get the Dragons over the hump? Tim Able was pretty successful in the past. Can he keep that trend going? A 28-1 record in two seasons and the school’s first football state championship in perfect 15-0 fashion this past fall answered all of the above and then some. At this point, the only question left is: how long can the Dragons stay on top? The best answer would be: as long as Ralph is holding the whistle and clipboard. Setting records on a consistent basis with a prolific, high-powered offense and defined by a stout defensive attack, Ralph has ushered in a golden era of gridiron dominance. One day, people in New Palestine will look back fondly on these years while retelling the tales of this team’s greatness decades from now. Go ahead and enjoy the ride.

Jim: Shawn Lyons

He lost five all-Hancock County players to graduation. His pitching staff looked completely different at the of the year than it did at the beginning. And his team was without two of its best hitters for a significant portion of the season. Yet by the end of the year, Shawn Lyons had coaxed his Dragons into their second straight sectional championship and another regional final. With a 13-4 career postseason record (four years), the three-time county baseball coach of the year can stake a claim as the best crunch time coach in the county.

Best Male Team

Rich: New Palestine football

What hasn’t been said already? No team in Hancock County was more authoritative than the New Palestine Dragons. Becoming the 80th football program in Indiana High School Athletic Association state tournament history to finish as undefeated state champions, coach Kyle Ralph’s Dragons’ unblemished 15-0 season marked the 12th perfect run in Class 4A. They were the fourth 4A team to post 15 wins in a flawless season all time. In their state championship win against New Prairie, the Dragons left Lucas Oil Stadium as owners of or tied for a combined 28 team and individual state finals records, including in 4A and for all classes. While New Palestine’s 77 points scored in the state title game was a record, its 83 points in the sectional championship against Beech Grove was inconceivable. The only team that can top what they achieved in 2014-15 will be the Dragons themselves — in 5A this coming fall.

Jim: Mt. Vernon swimming

The Marauders solidified their case as one of the top two male teams in Hancock County on the first day of the State Finals at the IUPUI Natatorium his past winter. Among swimming titans, Carmel, Avon and Zionsville, Mt. Vernon managed to advance two individuals and a relay team to the second day of competition, a feat very few Hancock County athletes who came before them can claim to have achieved. Unphased by the magnitude of the situation Dixon Tierney, Cole Case and their 200-medley relay crew each clocked personal bests to make the Marauders faithful proud. Mt. Vernon also dazzled at the New Palestine sectional, as they championed seven events. It’s worth noting that head coach Matt Kruse helped the Marauders accomplish all of this in just his first season at Mt. Vernon.

Best Games

Rich: “Royals Payback,” Eastern Hancock at Northeastern football

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and on a chilly November night, the Eastern Hancock Royals served up a healthy portion when they stunned third-ranked, and formerly unbeaten, Northeastern 21-20 in the Class A Sectional 45 championship in Fountain City. Falling to the Knights in the season opener 34-6, the ninth-ranked Royals avenged their Week 1 “whooping” with a revamped 3-3 defense, which clamped down on Northeastern quarterback Joey Claypoole. Limiting the mobile two-way threat to six yards rushing after surrendering 128 in their first meeting, Claypoole did do some damage through the air, but Eastern Hancock’s Cooper Henderson was just too good. With 127 yards of total offense, the ice man had a rushing touchdown, a 31-yard touchdown reception, converted three extra-point kicks, four tackles, and a crucial 40-yard punt return for a score. Henderson’s most pivotal play would be the sealer as he picked off Claypoole on Northeastern’s final drive with EH clinging to a one-point lead.

Jim: “Refuse to Lose,” Mt. Vernon at New Palestine boys soccer

The game was over. I remember, because I was there, and by the end of the first half I already had written most of my story. It sounded something like this: The Dragons jumped out to a 3-0 lead against an over-matched Mt. Vernon crew and went on to pummel their Hoosier Heritage Conference rivals. Good thing I stayed for the end. In the second half, the Marauders stormed back, looking like a completely different team. They overwhelmed a shell-shocked Dragons bunch, scored three goals of their own at went on to win the game in penalty kicks. Former New Palestine coach Bobby Holden was so upset after the game that he answered almost all of my postgame interview questions with one word and a scowl on his face. Can you blame him?

Best Team Theme

Rich: Serenity found: New Pal boys tennis

Who says awards are only reserved for wins and loses? We don’t split hairs like that. Sure, the New Palestine boys tennis team captured its third straight sectional title with a clean 5-0 sweep of rival Mt. Vernon on Oct. 3, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Dragons literally let their hair down (what was left at least) in the sectional championship, finding unity in uniqueness. In an attempt to intimidate their opponents, the players went George Costanza with the clippers, sporting “grandpa haircuts” to look like “old fogies” but play like “young men.” Even though the gray hair dye didn’t work to complete look, the tactic was a memorable one, sparking fun-loving opinions from everyone in attendance. “It’s hideous,” New Palestine head coach Chris Hardin told the Daily Reporter with a smile after the match. “And you can quote me on that.”

Best Wishes

Jim: Full disclosure: This being my first year at the Daily Reporter, I only had the pleasure of interacting with Barton on a handful of occasions. That said, it didn’t take more than a few minutes with him to realize why so many regard the ex-Dragons basketball coach with the reverence and respect he surely earned in his nearly two-decades at New Palestine. In our first meeting, he treated me like I already was part of the Hancock County family. He invited me into his locker room and answered my questions as if I had been asking them of him for years. I can’t tell you what that does for the confidence of a young journalist. I’ll be forever grateful he did that for me. I want to wish him good luck on his future administrative endeavors and conclude with the words of former Daily Reporter sports editor Brian Harmon after Barton announced his resignation: “The world of basketball coaching has lost one of the good guys.”

Author photo
Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.