‘QUITTING WAS NEVER AN OPTION’

INDIANAPOLIS — The Dragons are unfamiliar with the word “quit.”

Down three touchdowns? Oh well, New Palestine never stops fighting.

Behind the right arm of senior quarterback Alex Neligh, the No. 1 Dragons did just that Friday, surging from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to fall just short of claiming its second-straight state title.

No. 5 Fort Wayne Snider scored touchdowns on its first five possessions and got the last laugh in a 64-61 instant classic at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Quitting was never an option,” head coach Kyle Ralph said after the game. “I’m really happy that we fought the way we did.”

Despite the loss, Neligh made it known why he is a candidate for this year’s Mr. Football award.

He finished Friday’s down-to-the-wire battle with 501 yards — a state finals record — and four touchdowns. Three of those passes went to leading receiver Duke Blackwell, who finished with 328 yards through the air — also a state record.

Neligh churned out 166 yards on the ground while finding the end zone four more times.

“If he’s not Mr. Football in this state then I don’t know who should be,” Ralph said of Neligh. “He’s the best player in the state of Indiana by far.”

Ralph also said the duo of Neligh and Blackwell will be hard to replace. They have meant a great deal to the program and its rise the last few seasons.

“They grew up playing together,” Ralph explained. “They are New Palestine kids through and through. They are two of the most talented and hardworking men you are ever going to find.

“Because of that, they are successful. Neither is a four-star recruit. They just work incredibly hard at their craft.”

The Panthers were led by 346 passing yards and three scores from Eastern Michigan commit Isaac Stiebeling. After a big first half from the 6-foot-3 quarterback, the Panthers rolled to 42-21 halftime lead.

Stiebeling and the Fort Wayne Snider offense, which had the ball just 8:19 in the first half, used a wide variety of threats to keep the New Palestine defense (11.4 point allowed per game) at bay.

Four different receivers finished with at least 30 yards in the first half with 91 coming from David Turner. In fact, three of the Panther’s five possessions lasted 30 second or less.

But just like that, after halftime, momentum quickly flipped in New Palestine’s favor.

An offense that could not be stopped in the first half came out the exact opposite in the second, with the Dragons defense forcing three straight three-and-outs while scoring 28 points of its own and finally taking a lead with 8:34 left in the game.

Throws that were once sharp and precise turned wobbly for Stiebeling, thanks to increased pressure upfront and tight-knit coverage on the corners — including an interception from Brady Walden.

After regrouping in the locker room, Neligh came out throwing bullets in the second half, most of which went to Blackwell.

Blackwell’s last touchdown gave the Dragons a 61-56 lead with just over one minute in the game. Stiebeling scored with eight seconds on the clock, however, to give the Panther’s their first state title since 1992.

New Palestine had more total yards of offense in the loss, 757 in all compared to Fort Wayne Snider’s 545.

Neligh, who also won the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award after the game, passed James Young for the single-season rushing touchdown record (37) and Connor Simmons for the single-season passing touchdown record (37).

He finished his career with a school-record 64 touchdown passes and a 28-1 record in two seasons as a starter.

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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.