‘The Wizard of Iz’: Senior sets tone

NEW PALESTINE — “He’s a monster.”

Those were the choice words New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph used to describe Dragons do-it-all senior Joe Izbicki after the team’s convincing 56-6 rout of visiting Castle on Saturday during 5A semistate action.

Izbicki, whose role has grown on offense as of late, finished with two touchdowns, one on each side of the ball, as No. 1 New Palestine rolled past the Knights to secure its second straight state finals trip to Lucas Oil Stadium.

The offense sealed the deal, but it was timely plays by the defense — and Izbicki — that proved to be quiet keys in the win — much like the entire 2015-16 season.

“I felt like Joe had about 700 tackles tonight,” Ralph said after the win. “I’ll take ours (defense) any day of the week. We just need to go out there and play ‘Red Rage’ football one more game.”

Izbicki’s presence was felt early as the middle linebacker recovered a fumble in cold and windy conditions after the Dragons were forced to punt on their first possession of the game.

New Palestine found its rhythm immediately after and used two scores from its top two rushers, seniors Alex Neligh and Nick Brickens, to take a 14-0 lead with little more than 10 minutes remaining in the first half.

Then Izbicki did what he always does. Twice.

Mr. Right-Spot-at-the-Right-Time made a huge tackle on a Castle third-and-18 from the Dragons’ 22-yard line and followed it up with an 11-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown after New Palestine senior lineman Jordan Workman blocked the ensuing punt.

Just like that — 21-0. Game over.

Not exactly, but it certainly seized momentum and delivered a punch to Castle’s confidence, allowing the Dragons’ offensive studs to do their thing, break records and such, en route to the team’s 28th-straight win.

“I thought that might have been one of the biggest turning points we could have had,” said Izbicki, who leads the team in tackles. “You saw their heads go down, and that was huge for us.”

The defense forced three turnovers in all, with the other coming off an interception by junior defensive back Brett Luker. Castle senior quarterback Dayne Keller, who entered Saturday’s contest averaging 246.8 passing yards per game, was limited to 158 yards through the air.

New Palestine took a 28-6 advantage into the half and extended it to 35-6 after Neligh rushed for his third score of the game early in the third quarter.

Almost 90 seconds later, Neligh found a wide-open Izbicki, who finished the night with three catches for 45 yards, straight up the right seam for an easy 16-yard score.

Izbicki’s offensive availability was limited this season because of an ankle injury he suffered during Week 2.

“It’s been great just being able to contribute,” Izbicki said. “Being able to come out and do this, it makes me feel a lot better as a whole.”

The Dragons are one game away from repeating as state champions, although this would be the first 5A title in school history.

No. 2 Fort Wayne Snider (12-1) stands in their way, however, after dominating Kokomo 56-20.

New Palestine senior Duke Blackwell, who plays offense and defense with Izbicki, is just happy the “monster” is on his side come game day.

“He’s the heart and soul of that defense,” Blackwell said. “Without him, our defense probably wouldn’t be allowing 11 points a game.”

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Kris Mills is a sports reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 317-477-3230 or kmills@greenfieldreporter.com.