NEW PALESTINE — Silence speaks volumes inside the New Palestine locker room.
An unwritten rule prior to taking the field on any given game night, a deafening quietude puts the unbeaten Dragons in the right mindset, New Palestine senior Adam Kincaid says. Pin-drop pregame focus and nothing less.
And no more so than when it’s Columbus East week.
“You try not to make it too much different, but everyone knows it’s (Columbus) East,” the starting safety remarked on the Dragons’ expected hushed intensity this Friday. “Everyone knows it’s something special. There’s never a word before we go out.”
Story continues below gallery
One of the state’s fiercest high school football playoff rivalries the past four years, the Class 5A No. 2 Dragons (9-0) host the No. 4 Olympians (8-1) at Kelso Stadium to open Sectional 14, once again unbeaten and with everything on the line.
While never meeting in the regular season, the two teams can’t seem to avoid each other in the postseason, playing three straight years beforehand with New Palestine holding a 2-1 series lead. The winner of the past three games has marched on to the state finals, claiming two championships combined.
“It’s become a rivalry in itself. We had no history with these guys until 2013, and now it seems like we can’t get out of each other’s way. It’s exciting to be part of a meaningful game like this between two ranked teams,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said.
“Eventually, if you want to do anything, you have to beat a team like that, so our practice intensity is heightened without question, but on Friday it comes down to playing like a team, 11 strong and getting the job done.”
A Right of passage
Before Ralph arrived at New Palestine in 2013, the Dragons hadn’t won a semistate since 1990. The program’s last regional appearance was in 2009 under former head coach Tim Able.
The expectations changed when Columbus East entered the equation.
Running straight into the eventual 2013 Class 4A state champions and future Purdue Boilermaker running back Markell Jones at semistate, the Dragons first of only two losses under Ralph defined the future.
“That 2013 game was a learning experience for us. It gave us a chance to learn what championship-caliber football was when Columbus East came out and just waxed us (49-14),” Ralph recalled. “It taught us how far we needed to go. I really think our program wouldn’t be where it is today if Columbus East hadn’t pushed us to where we are. I think we’ve pushed them, too.”
The nudge propelled New Palestine to greatness and their first 4A state title in 2014 after a dramatic 30-28 rematch win at Kelso Stadium during the semistate against Jones and the Olympians. Last year’s 24-14 win in the 5A sectional championship marked the Dragons’ first win at Stafford Field en route to another state finals appearance.
“It’s kind of become a right of passage now to be a Dragon, and probably to be an Olympian, too,” Ralph remarked on the rivalry with Columbus East. “You have to go through one another to get further through the playoffs.”
Putting in the work
Once the sectional pairings were released earlier this month, pitting New Palestine and Columbus East together in the first round, the pads have been fastened a little bit tighter during practice, and execution has been scrutinized to the finite detail for the Dragons.
Nothing is left to chance and for good reason, Kincaid said.
If not, a more than 800-yard round trip sprint to grab a leaf from the bordering tree line along the New Palestine practice field awaits the in-compliant.
“Whenever we do play, we put some much emphasis on preparation,” Kincaid said. “The rule, for the defense this week, is if you step the wrong way, you go get a leave. The second time you do it, you’re done. That one-second step the wrong way, especially against them, and that’s six points right there. That can’t happen.”
Beyond the 35-point win by Columbus East in 2013, the past two games have been decided by a total of 12 points.
From a game-winning field goal in the 4A semistate by Spencer Corey two years ago to last season’s come-from-behind 24-14 victory in the 5A sectional finals by the Dragons, the margin for error is slim, especially on defense.
Both will be tested in the fourth installment as New Palestine boasts the 13th most rushing yards gained in the state, according to Maxpreps, with 2,812 and 47 touchdowns.
The Olympians are ranked sixth at 3,081 yards behind junior running back Jamon Hogan, who has amassed 1,285 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors to their offense. They’re going to put the big boys up front and will literally smash it downhill at you,” Ralph said. “You can either handle the punishment and physically deal with it or you can’t. If you can, and you can execute, you can be successful. It’s a huge challenge for us.”
Keeping stride shouldn’t be a problem for the Dragons, who are led by senior running back DuRon Ford, the state’s leader with 32 rushing touchdowns. A newcomer onto the scene after spending the past two years as a hybrid threat at Pike, Ford is first in 5A in yardage and second in the state in scoring at 196 points.
Quarterback Gunnar Large has paired with Ford to secure the team’s spot as the top-scoring offense (57.0 points per game) for a third consecutive year.
After losing 2015 Indiana Mr. Football runner-up Alex Neligh and several other key standouts, the new-look Dragons were doubted by many entering this season. So far, they’ve responded, winning games by an average margin of 41.8 points.
“There have been some people out there that didn’t think we would be as good this year because we don’t have Alex, Nick (Brickens) or Joe (Izbicki),” Kincaid said. “Then we draw Columbus East, and they say we’re done. That gives me added drive, and I believe the other guys, too, to do better. We’ve been playing with a chip on our shoulders.”
Defend the Field
The Dragons haven’t lost a home game since Oct. 19, 2012 when Hoosier Heritage Conference foe Mt. Vernon won 40-21 in the sectional.
Their streak sits at 21 straight, a sense of extreme pride for the players, particularly the seniors.
“When the postseason arrives, you sit back and you realize this could be the last week in your high school football career, so looking at that, it’s motivation to play your best,” New Palestine senior lineman David Judy said. “Defending our home field is a big motivation for us. We don’t want to be the group that loses the first game.”
The senior group hasn’t dropped many. The Dragons upped their regular-season wins to 36 straight after knocking off Delta at home 56-15 to end the 2016 schedule. The team’s 27th consecutive HHC victory clinched its fourth league title in a row and record-setting eighth overall.
Against Columbus East, New Palestine is 1-0 at home and 1-1 on the road.
“It’s going to come down to who’s stronger and who executes better. It’s always that way no matter where we play,” Judy said. “These are always fun games to play in because you know the play is going to be physical, and you’re going to face some pretty good competition. Being at home makes it that much more memorable.”
In four season, the New Palestine seniors carry a 50-2 record with three sectional and regional trophies, two semistate titles, a 5A state runner-up and 4A championship banner.
This postseason, they’re hunting for more as are the Olympians. Since losing to New Palestine in 2014, the program has been stymied in the tournament despite going 19-2 the past two seasons.
“This is Columbus East. We can’t ease back one bit because this is a team, since we’ve beaten them twice, is hungry and are going to come out firing,” Judy said. “No matter what quarter it is or how much time is left on the clock, they’ll play hard. It’s who they are.”
The Dragons, however, are uncharacteristically young while also the smallest team in 5A, since getting moved up in 2015 due to the IHSAA Success Factor. They are the third lowest in enrollment within the HHC at 1,094 students.
With 44 players on the roster, New Palestine routinely sees opposing sidelines packed with 80 or more players in uniform.
“Our success is ultimately up to our seniors, and it always has been. Every senior group has led us exceptionally well,” Ralph said. “Our team is incredibly young. We’re playing a lot of sophomores. We’ve started four or five freshman and our junior class only has six kids in it. A lot of these kids haven’t gone through a Columbus East type of game before, so we challenged our seniors. They know what it takes.”
Judy and Kincaid are among those mentors. With firsthand knowledge of the magnitude, both three-year lettermen were on site from the start in 2013. They are eager to put a stamp on their final legacy with, yet another, substantial first step.
“The guys before us set such a physical tone when they were playing that anyone who steps in, they have to work up to that,” Judy said. “Anyone who comes in, you don’t even have to say anything. They know what the expectation is because they’ve seen the guys before them. This is no different.”
21: The Dragons are chasing the program’s record for most consecutive home wins with 21 currently. The streak began on Aug. 30, 2013. The record is 38 set from 1986 to 1992.
4: For a fourth straight year the Dragons and Olympians face each other in the postseason, having never met in the regular season. The Dragons are 2-1 in the series, winning the past two meetings.
57: The Dragons are once again the state’s top scoring offense, averaging 58.3 points per game. It marks their third straight year at No. 1.
2: New Palestine senior running back DuRon Ford is second in the state in scoring at 196 points and 5th in total rushing yards (1,774).
1: Dragons tailback DuRon Ford ranks first in the state with 32 rushing touchdowns.
7: Columbus East junior running back Jamon Hogan is seventh in the state with 23 rushing touchdowns. He has 1,285 yards rushing and averages 142.8 per game.
6: Columbus East ranks sixth in the state in total rushing yards with 3,081 and are seventh at 342.3 per game. New Palestine is 13th in total yards rushing at 2,812.
35: Columbus East holds the largest margin of victory in the series, defeating New Palestine 49-14 in the 2013 semistate championship at Stafford Field.
12: Since their first meeting with the Olympians, the Dragons have won back-to-back games by a combined margin of 12 points en route to consecutive state finals appearances.
17: The Dragons are among the state’s 17 unbeaten teams entering the postseason. New Palestine has posted eight perfect regular-season records and four straight since 2013.
251: New Palestine first-year quarterback Gunnar Large passed for a season-high 251 yards and three touchdowns against Richmond on Aug. 26.
5: Dragons’ DuRon Ford has posted five 200-plus yard rushing performances this season and nine 100-plus yard games.
90: The Dragons longest scoring play from scrimmage this season measured 90 yards by DuRon Ford at Pendleton Heights on Sept. 16.
75: Columbus East’s Jamon Hogan longest run covered 75 yards in a 56-15 win against New Albany on Sept. 16.
10: Columbus East has won 10 sectional titles in program history.
9: New Palestine has captured nine sectional titles in program history in three different classes since 1987.
29: Of New Palestine’s 65 offensive touchdowns, 29 have been scored in drives taking less than a minute. Their fastest unfolded in nine seconds — twice.
Football Stat Leaders
By Kris Mills | Daily Reporter
Eastern Hancock, Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon, New Palestine individual stats for 2016.
Player School Comp. Att. Yards TD Int.
Jarett Lewis EH 105 217 1610 17 10
Zac Montgomery MV 120 187 1520 12 6
Gunnar Large NP 75 110 1421 18 4
Andrew Leslie GC 34 76 485 7 5
Spencer Hert GC 17 35 267 2 2
Player School Rushes Yards Avg. TD
DuRon Ford NP 184 1774 9.6 32
Michael Sosnowski GC 139 1142 8.2 12
Skylar Gary GC 111 936 8.4 9
Devin Denny EH 146 931 6.4 6
Eric Jones MV 143 822 5.7 5
Gunnar Large NP 62 681 11 11
Zac Montgomery MV 124 583 4.7 6
A.J. Muegge EH 46 267 5.8 6
Braden Brown GC 31 173 5.6 1
Orlando Mojica GC 21 136 6.5 0
Luke Canfield NP 25 132 5.3 3
Jarett Lewis EH 69 104 1.5 5
Player School Rec. Yards Avg. TD
Alex Barnett MV 24 480 20 4
Orlando Mojica GC 25 474 19.0 6
A.J. Muegge EH 36 473 13.1 4
Brett Luker NP 24 357 14.9 4
Adam Kincaid NP 17 350 20.6 6
Damari Gatewood MV 22 349 15.9 3
Brady Walden NP 16 347 21.7 5
Devin Denny EH 19 346 18.2 4
Clayton Cochard EH 15 297 19.8 3
Mitch McCarthy MV 27 296 11 1
Colby Jenkins NP 14 289 20.6 4
Payton Wilkinson EH 22 286 13.0 3
Mike Hoskins GC 12 151 12.6 1
Cole Van Slyke MV 15 122 8.1 3
Player School TD FG 1XP 2XP Total
DuRon Ford NP 32 0 0 1 194
Devin Denny EH 14 0 0 0 84
A.J. Muegge EH 10 1 21 0 81
Michael Sosnowski GC 12 0 0 0 72
Gunnar Large NP 11 0 0 2 70
Spencer Corey NP 0 1 66 0 69
Adam Kincaid NP 10 0 0 0 60
Skylar Gary GC 9 0 0 0 54
Alex Barnett MV 7 0 4 0 48
Brady Walden NP 7 0 0 0 42
Zac Montgomery MV 6 0 2 0 38
Orlando Mojica GC 6 0 0 0 36
Eric Jones MV 6 0 0 0 36
Cole Van Slyke MV 5 0 0 0 30
Jarett Lewis EH 5 0 0 0 30
Brett Luker NP 4 0 0 0 24
Colby Jenkins NP 4 0 0 0 24
Nathan Brand GC 0 0 20 0 20
Damari Gatewood MV 3 0 0 0 18
Payton Wilkinson EH 3 0 0 0 18
Clayton Cochard EH 3 0 0 0 18
Luke Canfield NP 3 0 0 0 18
Braden Brown GC 3 0 0 0 18
Player School Solo Ast. Total
Nathan Seifert MV 67 26 93
Spencer Maxwell EH 40 49 89
Mitch McCarthy MV 49 39 88
Charles Degraff MV 66 21 87
Reece Burkhart EH 57 23 80
Luke Ely NP 14 56 70
Cole Van Slyke MV 35 33 68
Clayton Cochard EH 41 27 68
Colin Faubion NP 27 43 68
Brandon Francis EH 42 19 61
Jayson Bowers EH 34 23 57
Bryce Ratliff GC 35 20 55
Jordan Shanahan NP 23 29 52
Josh Glover NP 19 32 51
Brett Luker NP 23 24 47
Devyn Brinson EH 31 15 46
Dalton Shaw GC 20 22 42
Chase Ratliff GC 28 12 40
Max Burhenn MV 27 13 40
Logan Robinson NP 10 30 40
Jarrett Huber GC 17 21 38
Craig Rifner EH 22 15 37
Adam Kincaid NP 18 19 37
Braxton Tritipo MV 25 10 35
Luke Splater EH 23 12 35
Matthew Chittum GC 11 23 34
Ryan Hoskins GC 17 15 32
Demetre Mitchell NP 10 22 32
Conner Hearrell NP 7 25 32
Kyle Morris GC 15 16 31
Drayke Tift GC 22 8 30
Alex Barnett MV 20 10 30
Player School Total
Brady Walden NP 4
Adam Kincaid NP 3
Cole Van Slyke MV 3
Josh Glover NP 3
Damari Gatewood MV 2
Colin Faubion NP 2
Jayson Bowers EH 2
Jordan Shanahan NP 2
Bryce Ratliff GC 2
Chase Ratliff GC 2
Spencer Maxwell EH 2
Player School Total
Charles Degraff MV 8
Colin Faubion NP 5
Clayton Cochard EH 4
Luke Ely NP 4
Brandon Francis EH 3.5
Kyle Morris GC 3
Cameron Wetli GC 3
Josh Huber GC 3
Reece Burkhart EH 2.5
Cole Van Slyke MV 2
Justice Hill MV 2
Dalton Shaw GC 2
David Judy NP 2
Josh Glover NP 2
Demetre Mitchell NP 2
Matt Chittum GC 2
Craig Rifner EH 2