NEW PALESTINE — The fear of a potential “sophomore slump” lasted roughly 48 hours.
With the community and the school still buzzing after the New Palestine football team ran roughshod to a perfect 15-0 season and the program’s first state championship in 2014, there was some initial concern of complacency.
Looking back now, head coach Kyle Ralph honestly didn’t know what to expect last December. He had no idea what impact contentment would have on his Dragons and, then junior, Alex Neligh.
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The first-year starting quarterback had just turned in one of the team’s best single-season performances, culminating with a record-setting Class 4A finale at Lucas Oil Stadium. Neligh reached the pinnacle at a meteoric rate and raked in all the postseason hardware associated with winning.
For a moment, Ralph wondered: How would Neligh handle success? Would he remain driven?
Or so he pondered, for only a moment.
“I stopped worrying about all of that when he walked in the weight room the Monday after we won the state championship (that Friday night) and was ready to lift,” the coach reminisced. “I was like, ‘OK, this guy really has what it takes.’”
While comforting to see, Neligh’s internal ambition, even in the face of victory, wasn’t a shock to Ralph. He’d witnessed Neligh’s potential firsthand on film before he was hired on in 2013 and watched his maturation into a leader by example.
As Neligh worked his way up the ladder, starting in the defensive secondary his sophomore year before trading in his understudy clipboard to pick up the torch left behind by former starting quarterback Blake Luker in 2013, Ralph knew what was possible.
Neligh made it attainable — and the numbers are staggering.
After narrowly missing out on a second state championship this season — this time in Class 5A — he finished with 5,374 career passing yards, 64 career passing touchdowns, 56 career rushing touchdowns and 3,344 career rushing yards gained.
In only two years, he cemented himself as the school’s career passing touchdown leader, first in career completions (306), No. 1 in career passing yards and in career rushing touchdowns.
His 8,718 career total yards of offense is unprecedented along with 120 career total touchdowns and his six single-season benchmarks in passing (2,852 yards), passing TDs (36), rushing yards (2,097), rushing TDs (37), total offense (4,949 yards) and offensive TDs (73).
Statistically alone, Neligh earned his second straight All-Hancock County Offensive Player of the Year honor, but to those around him, he was more.
“I think he’ll be the best ever to walk through the program. When you look at him, you have to look at the whole person,” Ralph remarked on his quarterback’s prolific career. “That’s the legacy he’ll leave behind.
“All the football stuff aside, he was good at everything. He’s a good person, a good student, a good football player, a good son, a good big brother, involved in the community, all of those things that we emphasized with our program he embodied. His legacy goes way beyond the football field and will for a long time.”
Finishing second in the voting for 2015 Indiana Mr. Football, Neligh admits just being considered for the coveted award is rewarding enough. He never set out to shatter records or wear a No. 1 jersey. He prefers the “ones” of his No. 11 red and white Dragons’ threads.
The goal has always been singular even while cutting his teeth as an offensive lineman turned quarterback in the New Palestine Cadet Football League.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to have as much success as I thankfully did have in high school. I just wanted to go in there and do well for my team and put us in position to win every game,” Neligh said. “That was my mentality my junior year and as coach had more confidence in me to put the ball in my hands more, especially this year, that’s when I realized this could be something special for me.”
With Neligh under center, the Dragons won 28 consecutive games before losing in a tug-of-war battle with Fort Wayne Snider, 64-61, in the Class 5A state title game. They finished 13-1 overall this season and won the school’s second semistate title in three years while being the state’s most prolific offense.
But reaching a second straight championship wasn’t a given — it was a result of sticking to the regimen, Neligh’s comfort zone.
“I love being a routine guy, having something to do everyday, whether it’s going to work out or going to football practice,” Neligh explained. “After that state game (in 2014), I really had no idea what to do, so I went back to what I know.
“Being on a routine is something I like a lot and it helps me out, knowing exactly what has to be done and when it has to be done by. A lot of getting back in there was not losing sight of that.”
The Monday after the Dragons lost at state last month, Neligh once made his way back to the high school weight room where coach Ralph playfully kicked him out because “he said, he wasn’t my coach anymore.”
While in jest, Ralph isn’t wrong. After passing for a state finals record 501 yards — 667 total yards — and recording four rushing and four passing touchdowns while leading the Dragons back from a 28-point deficit, Neligh has garnered some long overdue attention.
Despite passing for 2,469 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushing for 1,185 and 19 scores as a junior, the two-time All-State quarterback entered his final season without a single college offer.
Earlier this season, he gained Marian University’s interest. The past few weeks, he’s been visited by Indiana University and was presented with scholarship offers from the University of Indianapolis and Tiffin University in Ohio.
“I know it was incredibly frustrating for him to be such an outstanding player, so talented and really orchestrating two of the best offenses to ever play in this state and for everyone else to be pulling these offers. I know it hurt him a little bit inside,” Ralph commented on Neligh’s slow recruitment. “But it just shows the type of character kid he is. He didn’t let it bother him. He kept moving forward and kept on driving.
“In the end of the day, he’s going to play college football somewhere for free and make some team incredibly happy. I’m unbelievably proud he put the team in front of himself. He didn’t worry about the lack of interest. His attitude is whoever wants me and sees value in me, I’m going to go and play my tail off for them.”
More than anything else, he will bring with him the intangibles instilled by his mother Lisa’s guidance, which Neligh credits for his prosperity both on the field and in the classroom where he carries a 3.7 GPA.
“She is the biggest role model in my life. Everything that I am as a person and the type of football player that I am can be traced right back to her. She the one that has been with me through the thick and the thin,” Neligh said. “She’s always been the one to have my back. Having her to go to means the world, and at the same time she’s my toughest critic. She helped me out in my career more than people realize.”
The New Palestine legends of yesteryear pushed him to be his best as well.
Watching former standout quarterback Conner Simmons play as a grade schooler and even having the opportunity to play catch with him planted the seed, Neligh recalls. Learning valuable lessons from Luker paved the road for the past two years, which Neligh continues to blaze for the Dragons of tomorrow by volunteering his time mentoring grade school students at Sugar Creek Elementary and helping the NPCFL — routinely.
“Hopefully, I left a legacy as an overall Dragon, just having the hard work and the dedication and all you need to be successful, not only in football but as a person in the community,” Neligh said. “Hopefully, I was someone kids can look up to and say, ‘Hey, I want to be like that someday. I want to be a Dragon and play under the lights.’ As long as I leave that mark as an overall good person and a hard worker, then I’ll be completely satisfied with my high school career. That’s all that really matters to me.”