NEW PALESTINE — Rivalry games and Kyle Ralph are synonymous.
While playing at St. Xavier High School in Ohio more than a decade ago, Ralph and the Bombers couldn’t escape regular-season foes in the Greater Catholic League.
The postseason was no different, the New Palestine head football coach recalls.
“As time went on we developed a rivalry with Saint Ignatius in Cleveland. We ended up putting them on the regular-season schedule, so that made it an exciting rivalry,” Ralph said. “My senior year we beat them in the regular season but lost to them in the state championship. Those games were definitely huge.”
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His college days in the Atlantic Coast Conference were much the same.
Whenever North Carolina State or Duke came up on North Carolina’s schedule, practices at Chapel Hill were crisper, mistakes were magnified, execution amplified.
“Everyone always brought their best,” Ralph said. “Those practices always stood out to me as the most intense because, despite records, no one wanted to lose that game. You wanted to do everything possible to win those games.
“I’d say Columbus East fits the bill.”
Patrolling the New Palestine practice fields this week as his top-ranked Class 5A Dragons (10-0) perfect every facet for another clash with undisputed rival No. 2 Columbus East (11-0), the past and present are indeed blending.
For a third straight year, the two teams are meeting in the postseason with a championship on the line — this time for the Sectional 14 title. Once again, both programs enter their game unbeaten and perched atop the state rankings.
There are murmurs, with some calling Friday night’s game in Columbus the 2015 Class 5A state championship, four weeks premature.
“It’s really unbelievable that we’ve now collided for three straight years. It’s like we can’t avoid each other,” Ralph said. “It’s been very interesting so far, and I’m sure this will be another interesting round in that continued battle.”
Round 1 went to head coach Bob Gaddis’ Olympians, 49-14, which delivered the knockout blow in the Class 4A semistate at John Stafford Field before they marched on to a state title in 2013.
New Palestine senior quarterback Alex Neligh played defense that night and remembers it well.
The environment was hostile. The fans were rambunctious. Nothing went right for the Dragons.
One word sums up his recollection of the loss — coincidentally, the team’s last in 25 straight games.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” he said. “It definitely left a sour taste in our mouth, but it’s what drove us to our state championship last year, definitely.”
Leaving a profound imprint on the Dragons, Ralph pinpoints his team’s humbling defeat as an accelerated learning curve. It ramped up offseason conditioning and molded the Dragons of today.
It was the moment his program turned the corner mentally and physically.
“It was an eye-opener, and it was a good thing for our program. I don’t ever want to lose, but I don’t think we have the continued success if a game like that doesn’t happen to us,” Ralph said. “It’s made this mini-rivalry even stronger because the 2014 motivating factor was to get an opportunity to redeem ourselves and show everyone we belonged on that stage and could get the job done.”
Last year’s emotional 30-28 comeback win at Kelso Stadium for the semistate title against Columbus East put New Palestine among the elite, which they cemented the next week by winning the Class 4A title at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Now, the rivalry, like the series, is back at zero, tied 1-1, back where it all started in a new class with both teams motivated by a point to prove.
“Obviously, as the script got flipped a little bit, the 2015 Columbus East team is going to want to do the exact same thing we did last year,” Ralph said. “Our job is to make sure we get the job done and show everyone that we’re for real, too. It’s going to bring the best out of both teams that’s for sure.”
Statistically, neither team has shown a weakness.
The Olympians have won with offense, averaging 43.8 points per game, led by sophomore quarterback Josh Major’s 1,277 yards passing and 16 touchdowns.
Senior running back Steven O’Neal has dashed around opposing defenses for 1,685 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. Major is also a dual threat, with 947 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.
While the defense has posted two shutouts and have held six opponents to 14 points or less, the offense is producing 321 yards rushing and 427 yards total per game.
New Palestine touts the state’s top-scoring offense at 66.4 points on average. Neligh, the program’s all-time leading passer, has guided the Dragons to 79 touchdowns in 94 drives.
The second-year starter has passed for 1,857 yards and 26 touchdowns while rushing for 1,517 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has 99 touchdowns in his career and became the first Dragon to surpass 7,000 yards in total offense in a career after New Palestine defeated Martinsville 70-6 last week.
One of the keys to victory, however, resides on the other side of the football, Ralph said.
“This is a chance for our defense to really come out and make a statement that they can be mentioned in the same breath as our defense last year, which I thought was one of the best you were going to find in the state of Indiana,” the coach emphasized. “I think our defense is very good this year. Week in and week out they’ve performed, so this is a game where our defense needs to rise to the challenge.
“It’s not going to be easy. We have to be sure tacklers.”
Ranked 13th in the state, New Palestine’s Red Rage is allowing 10.7 points per game and held a team to seven points or less for the sixth time after their sectional semifinal win.
They enter the sectional championship plus-20 in the turnover margin with five giveaways and 26 takeaways, which have resulted in 20 scores and 146 points.
“In a game like this, turnovers are going to kill you,” Ralph said. “Their offense is incredibly talented, explosive and physical. You can’t give them extra opportunities to have the football without making them earn the yards.
“Turnovers are huge emotional swings. As important as they are in the field position battle, mentally they can get your team charged up.”
The Dragons witnessed that firsthand against Columbus East last year.
Charging back late with an Adam Kincaid fumble recovery before Spencer Corey’s game-winning field goal sealed the win in the final seconds, New Palestine survived.
Now, they want to thrive where they never have before — where the Olympians haven’t lost in 20 consecutive games.
“It was really tough when we went down there. It’s a difficult place to go into and win,” Neligh said. “They’re a tough team to take down on their home field, but it’s something we need to take on. We had to do it eventually.”
New Palestine (10-0) at Columbus East (11-0)
GAME TIME: 7 p.m., John Stafford Field.
COACHES: Kyle Ralph, 38-1 in third year at New Palestine. Bob Gaddis, 159-30 in 15th year at Columbus East, 277-130 in 37th year overall.
SAGARIN RATINGS: New Palestine, 95.45, 8th overall, 1st in Class 5A. Columbus East, 83.6, 20th overall, 5th in Class 5A.
LAST OUTING: New Palestine defeated Martinsville, 70-6. Columbus East defeated Whiteland, 28-14.
OPPONENTS’ RECORDS: New Palestine 50-57, Columbus East 46-66.
SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: Tied, 1-1.
LAST MEETING: New Palestine, 30-28, Nov. 21, 2014, semistate.
How They Compare
New Palestine vs. Columbus North
No. 1;state ranking;No. 2
66.4;point per game;43.8
10.7;points allowed per game;14.3
187.9;passing yards per game;106.4
381.5;rushing yards per game;321.3
Team Statistical Leaders
New Palestine vs. Columbus East
Alex Neligh 151.7;rushing yards per game;Steven O’Neal 153.2
Alex Neligh 185.7;passing yards per game;Josh Major 106.4
Alex Neligh 337.4;total yards per game;Josh Major 185.2
Joseph Izbicki 7.0; tackles per game;Sam Dwenger 9.0
Alex Neligh 15.6;points per game;Steven O’Neal 12.2
New Palestine Statistics