Dragons are ahead of schedule behind leadership of their coach

NEW PALESTINE — Kyle Ralph is often so consumed by the present that he hardly has time to reflect on the past. By his own admission, the New Palestine football coach prefers to keep it that way. Not until the job is done is his unspoken adage.

On Monday, though, he deviated from his routine, if for only a few minutes.

Shortly after the state finalist coaches’ meeting concluded at Lucas Oil Stadium and before facing a barrage of questions from the media about Friday’s Class 5A state championship game, he noticed something missing. No other school from last year’s Indiana High School Athletic Association’s football state finals was present — except New Palestine. Of the 12 teams, only one made it back. It was a proud moment for Ralph, one that sparked another remembrance a few days later.

“It’s kind of funny. When we won it last year, and it was over, I thought back to before I got the job,” Ralph said. “I had a vision for the program, and it ultimately came down to seeing if the kids would buy into the vision.

“I laid out a road map for it, and part of my interview process was, on paper, I gave the administration exactly what my plans were short-term, long-term and how we were going to get there.”

The plan was as clear-cut as a quarterback sneak up the gut. It was direct, required discipline, dedication and zeal.

Within three years, depending on if the kids embraced his philosophy, the program could compete for a state championship.

A sectional championship was a short-window goal, easily attainable in his mind. But a blue ring was going to take at least three years, or so he thought.

It was a bold prediction at the time, but a natural progression given the program’s tradition through the Marvin Shepler, Doug Armstrong and Tim Able eras.

Before 2013, the team had won six sectional titles from 1987 through 2009. Regional championships were few and far in between in 1987 and 1990 as the Dragons contended with the likes of Cathdral, Bishop Chatard and Roncalli.

Only one semistate championship banner hung in the gym, dating back to 1990, but Ralph believed there was more to come. The potential was untapped. It just needed a push.

He caught a glimpse of it first-hand the season before he was offered the job while attending a Dragons home game against Yorktown.

“It was an ugly night for Dragons nation. A really tough (27-20) loss,” Ralph recalled, “but I saw there was talent out there on the field.”

Once Ralph took over three years ago, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work molding it.

A product of the Greater Catholic League at St. Xavier High School, the former All-American at the University of North Carolina made the weight room the team’s primary domain from Day 1.

The first year of intense training erased a 23-year regional drought. The next led to a historic 4A state championship finish and a cultural shift with lifting records falling faster than program marks in scoring, yardage or even wins.

Football mattered in Hancock County like never before, it morphed into an identity at New Palestine, leading to an unprecedented 6,935 yards of total offense this year and a school-best 28 straight wins.

“We don’t win without our kids and our staff. They bought in. All the credit goes to them,” Ralph deflected right on cue. “They deserve the recognition for our success.”

Whether he thinks he warrants it or not, so does Ralph.

“When I was freshman, we were in the weight room maybe three days a week for about an hour,” senior right guard Matt Moeller remarked. “Since he’s been here, we are in the weight room four days a week for at least two and a half hours a day. Last year we won state, and 10 days later we were in the weight room.

“It’s a whole different culture here. Winning is an expectation. He brought that.”

And he carries it like a beacon, shining far beyond Kelso Stadium. Making it a point to routinely attend football games at Doe Creek Middle School, Ralph takes pride in nurturing the New Palestine Cadet Football League, building Dragon Pride from the top to the bottom.

More importantly, though, victory starts by keeping homegrown talent right where it belongs.

“One of the big issues we had that I knew I had to resolve when I got here was that some of the private schools were picking apart our district and getting some of the best kids from New Pal,” Ralph said. “We just can’t have that. You were born here in New Pal, you live here in New Pal, I want you to play for New Pal. I want you to be a Dragon.”

His players wouldn’t have it any other way.

On the verge of becoming the first public school to win back-to-back undefeated state titles in two different classifications (during the Tournament Success Factor generation), a 14-0 finish would put New Palestine right where it’s worked to be — on the map.

“We talk about leaving a legacy behind that you’re proud of, and the one thing our kids have bought into is that they are role models for younger players,” Ralph said. “If you look down the end zone at Doe Creek on any given Tuesday night, you’ll see me and 12 of our varsity players, plus our staff members who are there on their own free will.

“I don’t ask them to show up. They just care. It’s important to them.”

Rich Torres is the sports editor for the Daily Reporter. Send comments to rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com.