COLUMBUS — All season long, opposing teams have tried to catch the top-ranked Class 5A New Palestine Dragons on their heels. Anything to knock the state’s No. 1 offense off its game and away from the field.
From cellophane-fresh defensive schemes to trick plays, each desperate attempt has sputtered to no avail.
On Friday night, however, No. 2 Columbus East (11-1) found a formula that worked — but not for long.
Off rhythm early as they got caught in the moment, the Dragons (11-0) showed just how adaptable they can be, especially on the most grandiose of stages, rallying back from a 7-0 deficit to win 24-14 and the Sectional 14 title.
“Emotions are really what get you started in a game like this, and the passion for it is what has to carry you through,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said after the game. “We knew they would come out hot and with a ton of emotion. It’s hard to beat these guys down here. It’s a really unique environment … it’s one of those things where you have to ride that wave.”
Falling behind fast to the Olympians (11-1) after a turnover on downs in their own territory and a botched punt to start the game, the Dragons rediscovered themselves.
Held to just one first down in the first quarter, the state’s most prolific offense got a boost from the Red Rage.
The defense held the formerly unbeaten Olympians to a turnover on downs and two punts the rest of the first half. The New Palestine offense regrouped and tied the game to start the second quarter.
“We went down 7-0 to a good football team. It happens,” Ralph said. “We just needed to settle down, play our game and get our kids back in rhythm. Once we did that, riding out the emotion, we really started playing good football.”
Quarterback Alex Neligh got the team back on track on the team’s first possession in the second quarter, connecting with Duke Blackwell for a 17-yard touchdown strike over the top in stride.
Neligh finished with 130 yards passing on 8 of 15 completions and two touchdowns.
After halftime, the Dragons had tunnel vision and executed with precision.
Unable to convert on third down in four attempts in the first half, they rattled off five straight in the third quarter to sustain two long drives at six-plus minutes and three-plus minutes.
Before those two series, the Neligh and Blackwell connection worked quickly, putting the Dragons up 14-7 with a 65-yard touchdown pass-and-catch down the middle of the field.
“We started to get the ball moving, running the football and getting those third downs. When we can do those type of things with our offense, it’s critical,” Ralph said.
Neligh capped the next drive with a 5-yard run as the Dragons used 14 plays and marched 86 yards to pull ahead 21-7.
A 25-yard field goal by state-record holder Spencer Corey early in the fourth quarter gave New Palestine a 24-7 lead, but the defense sealed the win — its second consecutive against Columbus East with the season on the line.
“Our offense gets a lot of the headlines in the paper, but our defense is really good at what they do. They’re physical and fast. We really challenge those guys up front,” Ralph said. “They came in and did a tremendous job.”
Forced to punt on the first three of their second-half possession, the Olympians cut into the Dragons’ lead with a 45-yard pass from quarterback Josh Major to running back Steven O’Neal, who sprinted up the sideline for the score.
After that the Red Rage clamped down, halting a fourth-and-1 play on the Olympians’ 31 with 2:46 left in the game.
O’Neal tried to bust through the middle, but the Dragons collapsed the rusher and the Olympians’ hopes of a comeback. The defeat marked the first by Columbus East at home in 20 games.
“This was everyone’s demon. It was my sophomore year, and if you played in that game or was involved with it, your worse nightmare was coming and playing at Columbus East,” New Palestine linebacker Joseph Izbicki said. “We conquered our demon tonight.”
“We started to get the ball moving, running the football and getting those third downs. When we can do those type of things with our offense, it’s critical.”
New Palestine coach Kyle Ralph
On how the team responded to an early deficit