NEW PALESTINE — Kyle Ralph deservedly paid homage to his football team’s past accomplishments while making a local TV appearance during a training camp practice session earlier this month.
From a 3-7 season in 2012 to 13-1 and a regional championship the next year, the fourth-year New Palestine head coach has only lost two games to date with the Dragons. Sandwiched between them both, New Palestine won a Class 4A state championship in 2014.
Yet, the topic of conversation for this particular interview focused on last year’s 5A state finals — the team’s first loss in 28 straight games — as the camera panned behind him where “8 seconds” appeared prominently on a chain-link fence nearby.
Down by 28 points and 21 to open the championship game against Fort Wayne Snider, Ralph’s Dragons nearly achieved the improbable last November, rallying back to lead before falling short of a repeat title in the final eight seconds of regulation, 64-61.
As one of seven teams in the nation being profiled for their near-misses, New Palestine has joined forces with Russell Athletic this year for its #SettleYourScore initiative, an advertising campaign geared toward programs working to build off recent setbacks.
Throughout the summer, the Dragons have been spotlighted in videos, photos, interviews and articles, which have all gone viral. Ralph, who is active on Twitter, shares each one with pride, but he’s the first to admit, his Dragons don’t need to be a reminded of their one loss — their only one in 14 games last year.
“We don’t talk about it as a focal point of the season. It’s something that happened and we talk about the lessons that we learned from it, but it’s really about how much harder you’re going play to make sure those eight seconds tick off the clock,” said Ralph, who carries a 41-2 coaching record at New Palestine. “For us, it’s about moving forward.”
While an exciting time for the players, school and community with all the national attention, nothing else has changed. The Dragons have the same goals as before, Ralph explained.
The loss is a motivator, similar to the team’s setback in 2014 when they lost to Columbus East at semistate before winning it all a year later. It’s the Dragons’ way — honoring the past while driving toward the future.
“They haven’t taken any of this and let it get to their heads,” Ralph emphasized on their exposure through Russell Athletic. “They’re very proud of it, but they’re here for a reason, and that’s to win football games and continue to do it the right way.”
The past three years, the Dragons have done just that while being one of the most prolific offenses in state history. For a second straight season, the program broke the state record in scoring, reaching 851 points in 2014 and 854 a year ago.
Their state-record 7,701 yards in total offense last fall topped their previous mark of 6,635 in 2014 and Rensselaer’s 6,771 the same year.
In their back-to-back state finals appearances, the Dragons have set more than 20 championship game records and have won 20 consecutive Hoosier Heritage Conference games to three-peat as league champs.
This year, however, the trend will need to be continued with a new batch of stars with the loss of several key seniors due to graduation.
Gone are quarterback Alex Neligh (University of Indianapolis), wide receiver Duke Blackwell (St. Francis) and running back Nick Brickens (St. Francis), among others now playing at the next level.
In all, 14 juniors are on the roster along with six seniors. Eight starters return with four on each side of the football. Similar to last season, the Dragons will deploy an iron man approach with a projected eight to nine players going both ways, the most in Ralph’s tenure, but as a mid-size public school in a larger class, the Dragons aren’t complaining.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge because we lost a lot of great seniors, and we’re definitely going to face a difficult sectional like we did last year. We won’t have the same group, but our seniors are motivated,” senior quarterback Gunnar Large said. “We didn’t get the title last year, and we are really motivated to get back there. We want to win games.”
Large, who was Neligh’s understudy the past two years, won the team’s quarterback battle this summer against up-and-coming freshman Zach Neligh.
A full-time quarterback as a sophomore, Large received limited varsity reps as a junior, but he has spent the past offseason getting ready to carry the torch, much like Alex Neligh did three years prior following former quarterback Blake Luker.
Ralph believes Large is up to the task.
“As the summer went on, a lot of that maturity from being in the program for so long really started to show itself. He’s very familiar with the system and he operates very well, and he doesn’t make many mistakes with the football because he understands the expectations of it,” Ralph said. “Zach took care of the football as well, but Gunnar has that edge after being groomed through the system for four consecutive years.”
Large’s soundness at the position will play perfectly into the Dragons’ game plan, Ralph added, especially with a pair of solid receiving options in returning starters Brett Luker (420 yards, five touchdowns) and Brady Walden (189 yards, two touchdowns).
Explosiveness at running back position will take pressure off of Large as well, led by senior Adam Kincaid, who was named IFCA Junior All-State as a defensive back in 2015.
Kincaid rushed for 378 yards and nine touchdowns on 54 carries, averaging 7.0 yards every time he touched the ball. On defense, where he returns at safety, he had 70 total tackles, 14 for a loss, a sack and two interceptions.
Newcomer, Duron Ford, a transfer from Pike, who was a top-flight sprinter in the 100-meter this past spring, will play 1-B to Kincaid’s 1-A role.
Junior Josh Glover and sophomore Luke Ely supply additional depth at running back, but their reps will be limited, Ralph said, since both are defensive starters.
“We actually have a huge stable of running backs, but those two (Kincaid and Ford) are going to take, right now, the larger share of carries,” Ralph said. “We have a lot of flexibility at that position, so we’ll have to find some creative things to do with those guys.”
Sophomore Colby Jenkins will start as an outside wide receiver. On the inside, senior Jordan Shanahan joins Walden to provide Large with two more viable receiving targets.
The Dragons return two starters on the offensive line with senior David Judy (6-0, 290 pounds), an IFCA Junior All-State selection, at left guard and 6-1, 241-pound sophomore Austin Keele at center.
Senior Cameron Shanahan (6-1, 235 pounds) will be at left tackle. Sophomore Demetre Mitchell (6-1, 284 pounds) is at right guard, while sophomore Laine Schonauer (6-1, 195 pounds) is at right tackle.
The defense will showcase Mitchell (33 tackles, three sacks) and Judy on the front line and junior Bryson Cooper (5-4, 191 pounds).
Junior Josh Glover steps into the middle linebacker position between a returning starter in Ely (55 tackles) and Jordan Shanahan.
Jenkins and Walden (32 tackles, two interceptions) are at cornerback while Kincaid, sophomore C.J. Faubion and Luker (31 tackles) round out the defensive secondary.
“David and (Mitchell) do a very good job in the weight room and are two that the kids really look up to on the field,” Ralph remarked on his new-look defense. “Josh Glover has been a really good addition inside. He’s a very charismatic person. He gets people excited and has a real energy about him.”
Spencer Corey, an Associated Press All-State honorable mention, returns as the team’s placekicker and punter. The senior set a state record by converting 106 consecutive extra point attempts last year before finishing 113 of 114 and 5-for-5 in field goal tries.
“It’s a new year, and we have a whole new set of weapons, so we’re going to try to use everything we have and in as many creative ways as possible,” Ralph said. “We have a pretty good vision for what we would like to try to get done this year. Now, it comes down to executing it and keeping our kids in mind and put them in the best position possible to be successful.”
Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Open at Lucas Oil Stadium
Friday, Aug. 26, 7 p.m.
NP 5-0 against since 2011
Friday, Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m.
NP 3-0 against since 2013
Friday, Sept. 9, 7:30 p.m.
NP 4-0 against since 2013
Friday, Sept. 16, 7:30 p.m.
NP 4-0 against since 2012
Friday, Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m.
NP owns 5-game winning streak
Friday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m.
SHS held to 3 points since 2013
Friday, Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m.
NP owns 2-game winning streak
Friday, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m.
NP 3-0 against since 2013