NEW PALESTINE — For the first time in more than two months, New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph had a Friday night off.
Drawing a vacation from the exhaustive week-in and week-out game planning and regimented pregame schedule, Ralph did what anyone in his position would do when handed a first-round sectional bye.
“I actually went out and watched our other sectional opponents play,” the coach confessed. “I’m not really big on that, but it’s hard when you don’t have a game to play because you’re in that football mood. I’m so used to it, I had to get some kind of football in.
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“It was a nice little Friday night for me.”
He wasn’t alone. Some of his top-ranked Class 5A Dragons tagged along as Ralph and his staff watched from the stands at Franklin Community’s Grider Stadium last Friday night.
The host Grizzly Cubs held a slim 21-20 lead through the first quarter before No. 2 Columbus East erupted for a 22-point swing en route to a 56-28 win.
Their 10th straight. The unbeaten and former 4A Olympians first in 5A playoffs.
It was all the undefeated Dragons needed to see.
“One team is going home and one team keeps playing,” Ralph said. “The sense of urgency has picked up, obviously, in regards to what we do in preparation and our mental intensity. This is it. There is no, we’ll come back next week and give it another shot.
“It’s either you get the job done or you start getting ready for 2016. It’s cranked things up around here.”
That was the message delivered before the Dragons broke their huddle at the end of practice Tuesday as each player listened attentively in mud-caked white jerseys under a steady rainfall.
There’s no next week, only Martinsville (0-9) at Kelso Stadium this Friday. The first of five games, if the Dragons “execute” and “capitalize” on the other team’s mistakes, not the other way around.
“We want to set a standard for ourselves,” senior linebacker Joseph Izbicki said. “It’s 5A, first time ever anyone at this school has done it, we want to put up a shutout. That’s what we’re working toward. We’ve had two weeks, so excellence is the expectation.”
Perfection through the regular season was the initial goal, which New Palestine achieved for a third straight year — the first time in program history. Claiming the team’s third consecutive outright Hoosier Heritage Conference championship and the first three-peat since Hamilton Southeastern (1994-96) was the second.
Check and check.
The final objective: don’t overlook anyone.
“Anything can happen. It’s high school football,” senior quarterback Alex Neligh emphasized. “They’re a 5A team. They know the ropes. They’ve been in this class for a couple of years now, and they play teams that are in 5A.
“For us to beat them or any of the teams we might face is going to be a challenge, especially because they know the ground and we don’t. We still have to go out and work hard to prove ourselves.”
Moved up to 5A due to the IHSAA Tournament Success Factor after winning regional in 2013 and the 4A state title last fall, the Dragons are competing in their third different classification since 1985 (4A, 2007-14 and 3A, 1985-2006).
On paper, they’ve been nearly as flawless as their 9-0 record.
Led by two 1,000-yard rushers, New Palestine’s offense averages 66.0 points per game, setting a school record for points in a single game with 84 on Sept. 19 against Pendleton Heights at Lucas Oil Stadium.
They’ve won 24 straight games and 16 in a row at home. They’re plus-20 in turnover margin (24 takeaways and four giveaways), have topped 570-plus points scored for a third consecutive season, and surpassed 573 yards in total offense six times, including a school record 813.
Defensively, the Dragons have pitched two shutouts and held their opponents to 14 points or less on six different occasions. The most points surrendered this season came against Delta in the regular-season finale 66-29.
“I think we can get better every week. Have we been pushed? Yes. Do I think we’ve played our best game yet? No. It’s going to happen soon because we’re going to have to play some great teams to do what we want to do,” Izbicki said. “I think what we can do is going to be scary. If we play our best game, it’s going to be a great day for New Pal.”
Routinely sitting the starters every week by the third quarter with the game well in hand, the team’s ceiling remains a mystery.
More impressive than the rate of production, however, is the overall sum.
While never taking a snap in the fourth quarter this year, Neligh, who picked up an offer from Marian University, has broken the school’s records for career completions (244), passing yards (4,190), passing touchdowns (51), total offense (6,778) and total offensive touchdowns (93).
Placekicker Spencer Corey broke the state mark (71) for consecutive extra points in a season with 78 and is two away from shattering the state’s 19-year-old record for most in a single season.
Senior wide receiver Duke Blackwell is the program’s all-time touchdown reception leader with 23 in two seasons.
Now, it’s a matter of translating those numbers to 5A after not facing a single opponent in their new classification this season with the HHC anchored by six 4A teams.
With his players well rested and focused, Ralph believes the jump won’t be an issue once the lights spotlight Shepler Field.
“I hope we show everyone what we’re really made of. We’re definitely going to be tested down to the very last second in pretty much every game we play for sure because from here on out, you’re playing tremendous football teams,” Ralph said.
“Last thing you want to do is overlook somebody and have some team sneak up and beat you. That’s kind of what we’ve done to people the past couple of years. Obviously, I think our kids learned a lesson from that and they know that’s not how you act or behave. It’s a message we talk about all the time.”