INDIANAPOLIS — In years past, victory didn’t merely allude the New Palestine Dragons at the regional level, it was often decided long before the final match.
Losing 5-0 to Hamilton Southeastern last fall in the North Central Regional semifinals, things weren’t so decisive on Tuesday evening.
Instead, the unranked Dragons (17-4) made their push in their fifth consecutive regional appearance, nearly knocking off No. 28 Lawrence North before falling 4-1.
“It was a lot closer than the final,” Lawrence North head coach Hector Clavijo remarked after his Wildcats improved to 11-6 and advanced into today’s championship. “Nothing was certain.”
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New Palestine opened the regional semifinal with a win at No. 2 doubles as the unbeaten tandem of junior cousins Tyler Swain and Nick Rusche (16-0) cruised to a near perfect 6-1, 6-0 victory.
Lawrence North responded at No. 1 singles with junior Cade Satz taking the match against sophomore Matthew True, 6-3, 6-0. Another match for the Wildcats at No. 2 singles by Robbie Bruner, 6-1, 6-2, put them ahead 2-1.
From there, things grew tense.
“We lost the first sets in doubles one and singles three, so we were 2-1, but it was unknown,” Clavijo said. “We were lucky we came back in doubles one.”
The Dragons’ junior duo of David Hockett and Colby Wagoner seized the first set of their doubles match 7-5. A few feet away, junior Patrick Hefferman rolled to a 6-0 first-set win at No. 3 singles.
“We were really beaten comprehensively by Hamilton Southeastern last year. This year, it was extremely close,” New Palestine head coach Des Evans said. “It could have gone 3-2 the other way. Our boys played really well. We’ve really improved.”
Hockett and Wagoner tried to carry the Dragons over the regional hump, down 2-1 and 5-2 before losing the second set 6-3. Hefferman rallied back from a 5-4 second-set deficit, forcing a tiebreaker before losing hold 7-6 (7-3).
Lawrence North made their final stand in the third sets, clinching their winning point at No. 1 doubles with a 6-2 final set. Zach Pointer beat Hefferman 6-3 in the third as the sun began to set.
“You can see their development as players. Their coach is doing very well with them. You can see the support and how it’s become a community for them. That’s very important,” Clavijo said. “I think that’s great and a big reason for what they did today.”
It was a moral victory, said Rusche, one of the Dragons’ five juniors in the starting lineup. Used to witnessing straight set losses across the board against regional competition in the past, the team fired back and forced two three-set matches.
“It’s a big achievement. We were expecting to win sectional, we knew were good enough, but we always get stomped at regional,” Rusche said. “Our goal this year was to come into regional this year and compete. I think we did a better job, and it’s good for our team.”
The Dragons claimed their seventh straight Hancock County Tournament this season and won a fifth consecutive sectional title by defeating Pendleton Heights 4-1 in the semifinals and Greenfield-Central 3-2 in the finals Saturday.
“I think we put in a great effort. We had a really good run. I think next year, we’re going to come back and make an even better regional run,” Swain said. “We don’t have any seniors this year, so I think we have a really good chance next year.”
Along with the team’s handful of juniors, New Palestine showcased two sophomores, including True, who finished the year 19-4.
The next step, Evans said, begins this offseason, which could lead to further success as his young group continues to mature.
“Our boys still need to learn the big match play,” Evans said. “We need to play in more tournaments. I know a lot of our players are in other sports, but I’m encouraging all of our players to get in those tournaments.
“The tournaments give those players from North Central, Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern the edge because everyone on the team plays all year round. When the pressures on, they come to the party. We need to do the same.”