INDIANAPOLIS — A dedicated student of the game, Alex Neligh was rarely, if ever, caught off guard as the starting quarterback for New Palestine the past two seasons.
One of the first players to latch onto the Dragons’ weekly game plan, and one of the last to fine tune the record-setting offense’s scheme before game night, some habits die hard for the 2015 Indiana Mr. Football runner-up.
As a member of the South team for tonight’s 2016 Community Chrysler of Martinsville/IFCA All-Star Football Classic, Neligh’s preparation hasn’t slipped.
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If anything, he’s doubled down.
A University of Indianapolis recruit, Neligh has spent most of his summer at the home of the Greyhounds — training, adapting and learning the playbook.
“A lot of football,” the incoming freshman remarked on his No. 1 priority this offseason. “I’ve been working here ever since the Tuesday after Memorial Day, after we graduated.”
On Sunday while many of the state’s top seniors arrived at UIndy for a week of practice before the All-Star Classic at North Central High School, Neligh’s transition was smoother than most.
Already familiar with the campus, the quarterback could have given tours, but instead he opted to do what he does best. He, along with former New Palestine teammate Nick Brickens, a University of St. Francis recruit, got right to work for the South.
“Both me and Nick are pretty humbled by this. It means a lot because we get to go and represent New Pal one more time,” Neligh said. “A lot of kids can’t say they get to play for their high school one last time. A lot don’t get to say they can go out and play another quarter of football, so it’s something we don’t take for granted.”
Neither is the significance of the situation.
The fourth and fifth players in three years to put on all-star jerseys for New Palestine, the duo’s selection marks the second time the Dragons had had double representation on the field.
In 2014, New Palestine record-setting quarterback Blake Luker, who was picked as a cornerback, helped the South All-Stars win its fourth straight game against its northern neighbors.
Last year, the Dragons had two players named to the South All-Stars with one participant in Neligh’s cousin Noah Grable at tight end.
The yearly event first began in 1967 with the South All-Stars winning 15-14, leading to a 27-22 overall series lead.
Tonight’s game will be the showcase’s 50th running, which amplifies the bragging rights slightly, especially after the North won last July.
Led by New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph in 2015, the South All-Stars lost 20-7 during a bizarre lightning-delayed game, which required a running clock to complete before midnight.
Neligh and Brickens would like to make up for the uncharacteristic defeat that derailed the South’s dominance. In the past eight meetings, the South has won five times.
This year, the South is being coached by the legendary Dick Dullaghan, who won eight state titles in his career at Carmel and Ben Davis.
“We take some pride in that. We’ve had some playful banter throughout the week with us and the North when we cross paths,” Neligh said. “It would mean a lot to win, especially after last year because the North won for the first time in a while.
“You definitely want to go out there to win. I love to compete. I love the feeling of winning. I hate to lose.”
Neligh and Brickens hardly did during their careers at New Palestine. As starters the past two seasons, the duo helped the program post a 28-1 record, winning 28 consecutive games, a Class 4A state title in 2014 and a record-breaking 5A state runner-up finish in November.
The past three years, New Palestine went 41-2 while shattering the state’s record for points scored in a single season twice with 854 this past fall.
“Both of them were captains for us. Both of them were multi-year contributors, and both had great reputations off the field. Both are great students, and the two of them won our two biggest team awards this year,” Ralph said. “It’s just great for New Pal football as a whole to have guys like that in it.”
Based on their numbers, they were logical choices.
With Neligh under center and Brickens at running back, the Dragons’ offense set a new state mark for yards gained in a single season with 7,701, a record they established in back-to-back years.
The 6-foot-2 signal caller wrapped up his prep career as the school’s career leader in passing yards (5,374), passing touchdowns (64), rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (120) and total offensive yards (8,718), among numerous other school and state finals records.
Only a two-year starter at quarterback, Neligh, a two-time All-Hancock County Player of the Year, set 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).
In New Palestine’s 64-61 loss to Fort Wayne Snider in the 5A state championship game, he passed for a state finals record 501 yards — 667 total yards — and had four rushing and four passing touchdowns while leading the Dragons back from a 28-point deficit.
Brickens rushed for 1,627 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior while starting both ways to earn the name “Mr. Versatility”.
At safety, the 5-9, 191-pound battering ram racked up 232 tackles in his career. As the team’s punter, he averaged more than 38 yards per kick and nearly averaged a first down per carry (9.6) as New Palestine’s lead rusher.
It wasn’t unusual to see Brickens on the field for every snap as he returned both punts and kickoffs and started on the kicking team.
“Probably one of the best compliments Nick got was when we were in the state championship. I was talking with coach Dullaghan, and he told me if he had a vote for Mr. Football, it would have gone to Nick Brickens,” Ralph said. “With all the stuff he did for us, he’s one of the hardest guys to replace because he never came off the field.”
Dullaghan intends to utilize Brickens all over the field tonight, according to Neligh. Picked as a safety and linebacker, he’s been getting reps on special teams.
Neligh will share time at quarterback with Southport’s Luke Johnston, one more time as a Dragon.
“This chapter is closed now officially after Friday,” Neligh said. “I’ve thought a lot about my career since graduation and appreciate what I’ve had along the way: my teammates, coaches and the whole community.
“They really mean it when they say there’s nothing like high school football. I’ll definitely miss it and already miss it. It’s something you can’t take for granted.”
Year;Solo-Ast;Total; INT; FR
28: The number of games the Dragons won in a row to set a new school record for most consecutive through 2014-15.
3: Neligh and Brickens both topped 1,000 yards rushing in 2015, giving the Dragons two rushers to do so for a third consecutive season.
7,701: The Dragons topped the single-season state record for total offense in 2015. Rensselaer set the mark at 6,771 in 2014.
1: Neligh finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in passing (5,374), TD passes (64), completions (306), rushing TDs (56), total TDs (120), and total yardage (8,718).
501: Neligh set a personal best in passing yards during the 5A state title game with 501 yards on 20 completions in 33 attempts and four TDs.
2,000: Neligh is the only player in New Palestine history to pass for 2,000 or more yards in back-to-back seasons (2014-15).
223: Brickens posted his best rushing performance with 223 yards on 17 carries for three TDs against Delta on Oct. 16, 2015.
14: Brickens racked up a personal best 14 tackles in against Mt. Vernon on Nov. 18, 2013. He finished with three solos, 11 assists and a fumble recovery.
854: The Dragons set a new school record with 854 points scored in 2015.
7: The Dragons clinched their third straight Hoosier Heritage Conference title with Neligh and Brickens in the starting lineups. New Palestine has won seven HHC titles since 2005.
21: New Palestine scored 20 or more points in a quarter 21 times in 2015.