LEBANON — The top-ranked New Palestine Dragons huddled together in right field for nearly 10 minutes after their loss Tuesday night.
Defeated for the first time in more than a month and their hopes of a Class 3A title run vanquished by fifth-ranked Lebanon, 7-1, in the regional final, the Dragons weren’t ready to leave.
Neither were their extended family, wearing red, white and blue, standing along the first base fence, waiting.
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As New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum and the Dragons turned and began walking toward the dugout, the Indianapolis John Marshall players and coaches joined the Dragons faithful in applauding their champions.
“By the way they’ve acted, by the way they’ve shown sportsmanship the whole year, they’re the best in my book. There’s no one better than New Pal,” Marshall head coach Justin Flanagan said. “It didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to today, but to us and the Marshall community, they’re champions.”
Kindred spirits after last weekend’s amazing display of kindness and sisterhood in softball during the New Palestine Sectional semifinals, Flanagan and nearly a dozen players cheered throughout the game.
Every play, every hit, every chance they could.
“It was an honor of ours to be here and to root them on,” Flanagan said. “For us, this is our family. This was a family gathering.”
The warm embraces and high-five exchanged along the fence amplified their bond and shared heartbreak as New Palestine’s 13-game winning streak came to a close.
The challenge was daunting for both teams. New Palestine carried the state’s ninth-best hitting average (.407), third most home runs (29) and third most RBIs (241).
The host Tigers were ranked eighth in the state in hitting (.411), eighth in RBIs (214) and sixth in earned run average (0.82).
The final statistic proved the deciding factor, with senior ace Jessica Weaver, a Dayton commit, tossing a complete game for her 20th win on the season and the Tigers (23-1) fifth straight.
She limited the Dragons (24-3) to four hits and struck out four.
“I knew runs would be tough to come by, but I also knew we would have some good at-bats. They came out and played great defense,” Marcum said. “They robbed Madison (Whitaker) of a home run (in the third inning). They had other huge key defensive plays. They were sitting back at the fence, and we were just missing it.”
Elisha Barker didn’t miss Weaver’s first offering in the top of the second inning, crushing a solo, lead-off home run for New Palestine’s lone run as it trailed 2-0.
She finished 1-for-3 but also took the loss, with 10 hits and four earned runs against.
Barker never lost her composure, though, despite an inconsistent outside half of the strike zone, which became more pronounced throughout the night.
Forced to challenge more on the inner half of the plate, the Tigers took advantage, orchestrating three two-out rallies, including a string of four consecutive hits in the bottom of the first.
Their 3-1 lead came off a two-out ground-rule double by Payten Redman in the third and a three-run sixth was sparked after two hits and a error with two outs.
The only run not scored with two outs came off the bat of Kassidi Cadle, who belted her first home run of the season to lead off the fifth.
“I don’t like to lose, but some times you just get beat,” Marcum said. “They just played better than us tonight. It’s disappointing, obviously, but I’m proud of the girls.”
So were the Patriots, who were among the last to leave and head for their bus to go home.
“I’ll look back on this season with a lot of fond memories,” Marcum said. “I’ve gotten several texts over the past week that the game that happened last week was much more important than a state championship.”
Class 3A Regional Championship
No. 5 Lebanon 7, No. 1 New Palestine 1
WP: Jessica Weaver LP: Elisha Barker
HR: Elisha Barker (NP); Kassidi Cadle (LHS). 2B: Ashley Prange (NP); Jessica Weaver, Laura Patterson, Payge Redman (LHS).