Making it look easy

NEW PALESTINE — Alex Neligh needed a minute.

Taking a seat on the New Palestine bench shortly after breaking through the Zionsville defensive front for a third rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter at Kelso Stadium, the senior quarterback let the accomplishment soak in.

He deserved it.

“It was a long game. It was kind of a relief to relax a little bit. The game was in our hands after that score,” Neligh remarked on his brief moment of in-game reflection Friday night. “I was just relaxing a little bit before celebrating with my team.”

Responsible for six of the top-ranked Class 5A Dragons’ (12-0) seven touchdowns against Zionsville in the regional championship, Neligh left nothing in the tank as New Palestine won 49-21.

The quarterback finished with 273 yards passing and three touchdown strikes, including two to his record- setting reception partner Duke Blackwell, who hauled in scores of 11 and 62 yards. Blackwell caught five passes for 126 yards.

In an attempt to keep the visiting Eagles (5-7) defense honest, Neligh rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns, measuring 3, 2 and 4 yards.

“For me to come out and perform the way I did tonight was in the game plan,” Neligh said. “We knew we had an advantage. They hadn’t really seen a running quarterback this year, so we decided to spread it out and open it up.”

The Dragons’ efficiency made an impression on Zionsville head coach Pat Echeverria, who spent three seasons at Eastern Hancock before leaving for Boone County in 2014.

“Whenever you have a quarterback that can run and throw the way that kid does, it makes it really tough on the defense because you have to defend an extra guy,” Echeverria said. “We’ve seen some quarterbacks that can run and some that can throw. He was the best mix of both of those. And up front, those are about the best groups we’ve seen all year on offense and defense.”

Coming into the postseason, the Eagles had witnessed their fair share of high-level talent on the gridiron as members of the touted Hoosier Crossroads Conference. Zionsville faced several ranked 6A programs in Fishers, Hamilton Southeastern and Avon. With each HCC foe came a litany of Division-I talent.

After seeing Neligh march the Dragons to a 28-14 lead by halftime and put together consecutive drives in the second half, Echeverria believes he ranks among the best.

“If he’s not a Mr. Football candidate, I don’t who would be. He’s done everything he could do at this point. They’re 12-0, he’s playing in the semistate,” the coach said. “From a dual-threat standpoint, he’s as good as it gets at the high school level.”

And he’s having fun.

Completing 18-of-26 pass attempts, Neligh broke the 2,000-yard barrier in a single season for the second straight year — the first time a quarterback has doubled up the feat in school history.

His first touchdown pass fell into Blackwell’s hands on the Dragons’ first possession. The offense sputtered twice with a punt and a turnover on downs, but found the end zone every other series.

Blackwell punctuated the night early in the second quarter as he grabbed a perfectly led pass off a slang route, breaking three tackles with high steps to score on a 62-yard pass-and-catch play.

“I’m having a blast. We were out there celebrating and having fun after every touchdown,” Neligh said. “It’s about enjoying the ride. It’s so much fun to be in the situation. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Despite being the smallest 5A school in the state tournament and having multiple players on their 41-man roster play both ways, the Dragons are one more game from a repeat state finals appearance.

“For our guys that was a big chip on their shoulder that people continue to bash us because we’re some 4A school that plays in a 4A/3A conference and we don’t have many kids and we can’t get the job done,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “I hope people keep overlooking us. Our kids just keep playing hard and I love them to death for it.”

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