INDIANAPOLIS — Kyle Ralph stood tall for his team. Surrounded by his players in the end zone at Lucas Oil Stadium as they struggled to fight back the tears after top-ranked New Palestine lost a heartbreaker to Fort Wayne Snider 64-61, the Dragons’ coach had one thing to say before dropping his guard.
“You didn’t give up. You didn’t give in,” the Dragons coach said with a booming voice before tears welled up in his eyes.
“I couldn’t be prouder of all of you.”
Down by 21 points after an error-filled first quarter, the Dragons (13-1) never gave up nor stopped believing in each other.
Tying the game at 42-42 at the end of the third quarter, they put themselves in position to win behind a prolific performance by senior quarterback Alex Neligh but just fell short of a repeat state championship.
Neligh, who was named the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award winner for Class 5A, finished with a state-finals record 501 passing yards on 20 of 33 completions and four touchdowns.
He rushed for 182 yards and another four touchdowns.
His performance shattered the former 5A record of passing yards set by Warren Central’s Jeff George (257) in 1985 and tied Warren Central’s Desmond Tardy’s record for most touchdowns in 5A at four.
But it didn’t go exactly as planned early in the game as New Palestine trailed 21-0 after the first quarter with three straight possessions leading to two fumbles and a punt.
New Palestine had trailed only twice this season. The first was in Week 2 at home against Richmond before the Dragons rattled off 72 unanswered points to win. The visiting Red Devils opened with a 95-yard kickoff return in the game’s first 16 seconds.
The other was against Columbus East, 7-0, in the sectional championship. New Palestine roared back to score 24 consecutive points to win by 10.
The 21-point deficit in the first quarter was the largest New Palestine has faced all year, never trailing by more than seven points.
Through 13 games, the Dragons scored 222 of their 793 points in the first quarter while allowing 21 total points in the first.
Their two first-quarter fumbles nearly matched their total for the season. The Dragons were plus-23 in the turnover margin heading into the game.
“We didn’t come out and execute early, and that’s my fault. We just weren’t ready to play,” Ralph said. “That’s a reflection of me. That’s something I’ll have to get better at … but if we’re not in a 21-0 hole after one, then we might win this thing. It happened, and like I told my kids just now, there’s always a winner and always a loser. There’s never ties in life and never quitters because it’s unacceptable. Our guys never quit.”
The Dragons never lost faith in each other and nearly stormed back from their third deficit to remain unbeaten.
Down 42-21 at halftime after Fort Wayne Snider (13-1) turned both New Palestine turnovers into touchdown drives, the Dragons went to work in the third quarter.
The Dragons put themselves in position to claw back in the second half by forcing Fort Wayne’s first punt from its own 34 after a sack by Thaddeus Muse for an 8-yard loss.
In the first half, the Panthers were 5-for-5 to start the game before losing possession on an Isaac Stiebeling interception with Snider up 35-14. They recovered quickly with a 47-yard touchdown pass from Stiebeling to David Turner but couldn’t get anything going in the third quarter.
New Palestine found their groove and scored 21 unanswered points to tie the game at 42.
“We know we can’t give up to each other. We can’t give up on the task at hand because we know we’re always in position to win the game no matter how much we’re down,” Neligh said. “To come firing like we did in the second half means a lot, but it would have been better if we could have had a couple of more stops and didn’t have the mistakes in the first half.”
Neligh tied James Young for the school’s single-season rushing record for touchdowns with his 35th this year on his second score, a 47-yard run to cut into the deficit 42-28.
On the Dragons next possession, Neligh connected with Duke Blackwell for a 73-yard touchdown to make it 42-34.
Blackwell finished with a state finals record 328 yards receiving on 10 catches with three touchdowns in the game.
The momentum swing continued on the ensuing kickoff as Luke Ely forced a Damarious Ridley fumble that Logan Greene scooped up for a 20-yard recovery touchdown.
Spencer Corey knotted the score at 42 with his 112th consecutive extra point conversion.
A New Palestine eight-play drive to open the fourth quarter, capped by a 12-yard run by Neligh completed the comeback rally as the Dragons went up 49-42.
But Snider wasn’t done.
A Malik Bramley 65-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and two drives at 47 and eight seconds matched each New Palestine attempt to shed the Panthers.
Stiebeling passed for 346 yards on 18 completions, finding four different receivers and Money Woods rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown.
The teams set a record for most yards combined in a state finals game and set a record for points scored.
Stiebeling followed up Bramley’s huge return with a monstrous 57-yard pass to the receiver to give the Panthers some breathing room at 56-49 and 4:22 left in the game.
Neligh continued to push back.
“We just stopped shooting ourselves in the foot. We started firing on all cylinders and just tried to help ourselves out more than we did in the first half,” Neligh said.
“I trust my defense, and they’re a tough offensive stop anyway, and I’m proud of the way we all stepped up in the second half,” Neligh said.
The team captain, without the services of starting running back Nick Brickens who didn’t return to the field in the second half, led two more final scoring drives.
The first was highlighted by a 4-yard run by Neligh. The second was a 56-yard strike over the top of two defenders to Blackwell in stride.
The initial score, however, was soured by a blocked extra point, which forced the Dragons to go for a two-point conversion after the ensuing touchdowns.
Both failed and proved the difference as Stiebeling iced the game with 0:08 left on the clock on a 3-yard rushing touchdown and a two-point run to erased New Palestine’s 61-56 lead.
Neligh tossed a desperation pass, but an interception sealed the loss, the first in 28 games for New Palestine.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to a group of guys that’s worked so hard for us, for the community, for the program,” Ralph said while holding back tears. “I knew the day was coming, but it was tough.”