NEW PALESTINE — There were no late-game heroics. A walk-off field goal wasn’t necessary. Not this time.
On Saturday night against Castle (8-5) in the semistate championship, the top-ranked Class 5A New Palestine Dragons (13-0) simply did what they do best — what they’ve done all season long.
“In the pregame, I told them, ‘We’re not asking you for anything exceptional tonight. We’re just asking for your best. That’s no different than what we’ve asked of you before this year,’” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph remarked after his Dragons dismantled the Knights 56-6 at Kelso Stadium. “They gave their best tonight, and that’s why we win.”
Lucky win No. 13 to be exact, the fourth straight victory this postseason and the program’s second consecutive semistate title in three tries.
A state finalist for the first time in school history at 5A, the Dragons’ magic number is now one. Only No. 5 Fort Wayne Snider (12-1) remains, New Palestine’s last hurdle to clear this Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
One more win to complete a wire-to-wire finish and become the first public school to seize back-to-back state titles in two different classes after moving up due to the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Tournament Success Factor.
Another chance to be their best, which was undeniable against Castle, a threat at perfection after upsetting formerly unbeaten No. 3 Bloomington South the week prior at regional.
“I said it earlier in the year, when New Pal plays one of its best games, it’s going to be a great day for New Pal. This one was probably one of the two best,” senior Joe Izbicki said. “We play fast. We play physical, and we play with heart. You can’t beat heart. That’s all you need.”
In the seniors’ final home game of their careers on Shepler Field, the Dragons marched to the beat of one, in unison, in all facets.
The state’s most prolific offense led by All-American quarterback Alex Neligh bulldozed to 430 yards — 337 rushing — behind a rabid offensive line and orchestrated seven touchdown drives in nine possessions.
New Palestine built a 28-0 lead in the first half, passing only four times and attempting nine aerial plays the entire game.
The defense cranked up the heat despite the snow flurries overhead, forcing two turnovers, including a second-half interception by Brett Luker and a fumble recovery by Izbicki — both setting up short fields and scores.
For the third time this postseason, the Red Rage held an opponent to 14 points or less. For a third straight week, the Dragons thwarted the opposing team’s strengths.
Castle quarterback Dayne Keller was coming off a 319-yard and five touchdown performance against Bloomington South, which had averaged 11.5 points per game allowed.
Keller passed for 2,961 yards and 42 touchdowns entering Saturday. He left Hancock County with a humbling 158 yards and one touchdown. The scoring strike marked Castle’s only successful drive, unfolding in the final two minutes of the first half after losing leading rusher Jadrien Higginson to a head injury.
“I challenged our defense this week in a major way. A lot of the hype and the buzz was that Bloomington South had this impenetrable defense, and I’m not taking anything away from them, but I feel like our defense is one of the best you’ll find,” Ralph said.
“They’ve been unbelievably undervalued and under appreciated this year because of what our offense can do. The truth is, our offense wouldn’t be doing what they do if our defense wasn’t giving us the ball back with good field position.”
The same could be said for the special teams.
With the game still in question early in the second quarter, the punt return team put its stamp on the all-around effort.
Breaking through the front line, Jordan Workman blocked a Nick Benton punt in the Knights’ red zone, which Izbicki scooped for an 11-yard fumble return and a touchdown to put New Palestine ahead 20-0.
Another botched Castle punt midway through the third quarter as Benton’s kick caromed off a lineman’s back and was met by a swarm of Dragons and a first-and-10 from the Knights’ 16.
Three seconds later, Neligh turned the gift into a 16-yard touchdown pass to Izbicki.
“We played extremely poorly on special teams against Zionsville (in the regional). Needless to say, it was a point of emphasis for me come Monday to get ready for this week,” Ralph said. “Our special teams this week, in no uncertain words, had to be absolutely outstanding. I really put it on those guys, and they came out and played dynamite.”
The offense maintained status quo and added to its already historic legacy.
Neligh piled onto his single-season record for total offense, now at 4,282 yards. He rushed for three touchdowns at 10, 13 and 1 yards to tie Jeff Miles’ record of 52 (1986-87) for most in school history.
Senior running back Nick Brickens racked up 86 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns. A 13-yard run in the third quarter put the Dragons’ offense in immortal realm, surpassing Rensselaer Central as the state’s all-time best.
New Palestine broke Griffith’s 1997 record of 6,560 yards with 6,635 in 15 games en route to the 4A state title last year, but Rensselaer rolled to 6,771.
Two games ahead of schedule, the Dragons stand alone with 6,942 yards.
“I’m kind of running out of things to say about these guys,” Ralph commented on his team’s production. “It’s an honor and a pleasure to work with the kids we have on offense. It is just so much fun to come in every week, give these guys a game plan, see them embrace it, learn it, attack it and execute it.
“To think we have one more shot for the big thing, I’ll go to battle with these guys anytime. We’ll see if we can do it one more time.”
It’s a matter of playing their game, Neligh said. It’s worked through 28 straight wins overall, 18 consecutive at home where the seniors haven’t lost in three years and twice in a row at Lucas Oil Stadium where the school is 4-3 since 2008.
“We just have to go out and be 1-0. Win one more,” Neligh said. “Then the job is done.”
The top-ranked New Palestine Dragons are heading back to state.
After defeating Castle 56-6 in the semistate championship on Saturday night, the Dragons are taking their perfect 13-0 record to Lucas Oil Stadium this Friday night to face No. 5 Fort Wayne Snider (12-1).
Get your tickets this week at the New Palestine High School athletics office and support the Dragons as they chase history with a chance to capture their second straight undefeated state championship.
Advance-sale tickets are $15 and give you all-day access at Lucas Oil Stadium where the Class A, 3A and 5A title games will take place, beginning at noon.
Tickets can be purchased at NPHS this Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.