NEW PALESTINE — It’s a time honored tradition on New Palestine’s practice field. One the players have embraced belly-flop first since head coach Kyle Ralph first initiated it three years ago.
The Mud Bowl: a lighthearted scrimmage on the team’s worn down turf reserved for those ideal wet and slippery days.
Fun is a requirement. Hard hits are permissible. Clean uniforms are frowned upon.
“We only do it when we’re playing for a championship,” Ralph remarked with his top-ranked Class 5A Dragons set to compete in its third consecutive semistate title game this Saturday against Castle. “The kids have a lot of fun with it. The seniors get to call the plays. … We started it a few years back when we played Mt. Vernon in the sectional.
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“We haven’t had too many wet days, so when it rained earlier and soaked the field pretty good, they were excited.”
Highlighted by breakaways runs and some non-traditional play-calling, the occasional trick play is a common sight during the team’s organized chaos.
One particular play, however, whipped the on-looking players and coaches into a frenzy — lineman sneak. First down.
It’s not often, if ever, a 240-plus pound rusher gets the glory, but the Dragons’ offensive line knows the drill. They don’t get the headlines or hear their names called out over the PA on game nights. That’s reserved for the smaller guys.
Instead, they find their own ways of seizing the spotlight, and the top prize is winning the team’s coveted traveling trophy.
“This year, I went to Walmart and bought a WWE United States championship belt,” Ralph said. “The lineman that has the top grade with your knockdowns added on to that final score gets the belt every week.
“When those guys win it, it’s pretty serious bragging rights.”
This season, center Andrew Yazel, a 5-foot-11 and 272-pound senior, has captured the belt a team-best eight times.
“I got it the second week, and every week I got it, I came in to accept it with a different WWE intro song. It was awesome,” Yazel laughed. “We don’t really have anything, so we like to have something that’s ours.
“It’s a friendly competition with us. It’s nice to have something to look forward to and give us an edge over the week to see who’s doing better. It’s just something that brings us closer together.”
Unity isn’t a problem for the team’s front five.
The group first took shape in middle school when Yazel moved into the area and senior right guard Matt Moeller (6-3, 284 pounds) and senior tackle Michael Woodall (6-1, 219 pounds) started playing football.
Senior left tackle Nick Derheimer (6-4, 267 pounds) joined the team freshman year and junior left guard David Judy (6-0, 268 pounds) progressed up the system at the same time.
Yazel and Judy both broke into the varsity lineup in 2013 when the Dragons reached their first semistate since 1990. The next year the fivesome gelled as one under the tutelage of lineman coach Dan Buchanan, starting every game and becoming close friends in the process.
Pushing each other in the weight room, the group has lifted more than 5,000 pounds, and when they’re not on the field, they’re always going out together in the hallways, at dinner and at each other’s houses.
“We’re pretty interesting. We’ll never find one like us. We have a lot of different personalities mixed together and we have a lot of fun,” Moeller said. “But if we need to get serious, we know how to buckle down and get the job done.
“We take a lot of pride in what we accomplish on the field, mainly the running game because that’s what we can directly affect,” Moeller added. “We also take pride in what Alex (Neligh) can do in the back. If he’s got time, he’s a fantastic quarterback. He’s going to make the throws. If we give him the time, we’re going to win a lot of games and we have.”
As starters, the group has paved the way to 27 consecutive wins, 1,588 points, 13,147 yards of offense and numerous school records set by Neligh, an Esmark All-American quarterback and fellow senior wide Duke Blackwell at wide receiver.
“Knowing we have those guys give me and all of the guys on offense confidence,” Blackwell said. “They knew what was expected this year, what they could do and how to do it because they had a whole year to experience the challenges of going to state and a 15-0 record last year.
“We probably wouldn’t be at the level we’re at right now without them.”
Despite suffering a blow in Week 2 when the group lost Woodall with a season-ending injury, the four remaining starters dug in deeper and took on an immediate leadership role as freshman Austin Keele (6-0, 219 pounds) slid in at right tackle.
The seniors took Keele under their wing, and he already more than proved himself by breaking every freshman lifting record in the offseason. Once he came in Week 3 ready both physically and mentally, they felt more than comfortable bringing him into the fold.
“Keele is a freshman, but he’s obviously not a freshman when you look at him. He’s been doing a great job,” Yazel said. “He’s had his games, you know, he’s obviously a young guy, but he knows the game plan and is in every week. He’s just a good kid and plays hard.”
He showed that this week when he stole the show by reclaiming the belt after New Palestine improved to 12-0 by thumping Zionsville in the regional championship 49-21.
“I broke the record for knockdowns this last game, but Keele got me by one point. He’s actually had it twice. I hate it when a freshman gets it,” Yazel laughed. “But he’s a good guy.”
In the semistate at Kelso Stadium where the Dragons are riding a 17-game winning streak, Ralph, a former standout lineman at St. Xavier and at the University of North Carolina, knows his Dragons will only be as good as his line.
“You don’t do what we do without blocking,” Ralph said. “We have talented kids back there and good players will get you three to four yards per carry by themselves, but our guys have doubled that. That extra is the offensive line getting the job done.
“I’m really proud of that because what we want this team to stand for our offensive line represents very well … they have become a real true brotherhood.”
How They Compare
New Palestine vs. Castle
No. 1;state ranking;Unranked
61.4;point per game;38.8
11.8;points allowed per game;17.8
190.0;passing yards per game;249.7
352.7;rushing yards per game;152.8
542.7;total yards per game;402.5
Team Statistical Leaders
New Palestine vs. Castle
Alex Neligh 143.2;rushing yards per game;Jadrien Higginson 130.6
Alex Neligh 188.2;passing yards per game;Dayne Keller 246.8
Alex Neligh 331.3;total yards per game;Dayne Keller 241.1
Joseph Izbicki 7.8; tackles per game;Mitchell Thornbury2.5
Alex Neligh 15.0;points per game;Noah Mclean 8.3
New Palestine Statistics
• Statistics as of Nov. 19, 2015 (published on Maxpreps.com)
Castle (8-4) at New Palestine (12-0)
GAME TIME: 6 pm Saturday at Kelso Stadium
COACHES: Doug Hurt, 78-38 in 10th year at Castle. Kyle Ralph, 40-1 in third year at New Palestine.
SAGARIN RATINGS: New Palestine, 96.31, eighth overall, first in Class 5A. Castle, 73.45, 51st overall, 13th in Class 5A.
LAST OUTING: Castle defeated Bloomington South, 45-26. New Palestine defeated Zionsville, 49-21.
OPPONENTS’ RECORDS: Castle 66-65, New Palestine 67-68.
SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: No meetings.