NEW PALESTINE — Times were tough. Brian Kehrt was rushing around the halls to find five players to form a junior varsity team. Handed the keys to a program with three wins one season before, Kehrt knew a turnaround would take time — and probably even more patience.

Numbers and interest were low, but Kehrt’s morale was not. With a coaching style centered around defense, Kehrt needed just four seasons to leave his mark on a program that had seen better days. First came nine wins. Then 12 and 16.

After 17 wins this season, the most for New Palestine since 2004, Kehrt has further solidified the Dragons as a consistent contender — a program able to go toe-to-toe with any team on its schedule.

After a 1-3 start this year, the Dragons rolled off nine consecutive wins before dropping two contests to Greensburg and Pendleton Heights. New Palestine closed its season winning seven of nine games and fell to Franklin Central by a point in the team’s sectional semifinal contest.

For his and the Dragons efforts, Kehrt has been named Daily Reporter Coach of the Year.

“When we took over, it was a program that had struggled,” Kehrt said, who coached the boys program for 10 years. “We said we weren’t going to worry about wins and losses; let’s make this team so that we are competitive. That first year, rather than go out and play 20 games over the summer, we stayed in the gym and worked on fundamentals. Slowly but surely, we worked our way back up.

“I have been fortunate to be under three really good coaches, which has allowed me to do this. This is a program award. It takes everyone”

But Kehrt, who is 54-37 with the program, will be the first to tell you: the results came sooner than expected.

Losing a deep senior class that won 16 games would worry any head coach. Would the program take a step back with a large amount of youth? Would New Palestine win only a handful of games without a roster filled with proven players? The answer was no. The Dragons got better.

It does help to have senior Raegan McMurray. With the do-it-all forward in control, Kehrt and New Palestine pieced together one of the best seasons in school history. On her senior night, the Dragons clinched their best back-to-back season win total since 1991-94, according to the team’s athletic page.

McMurray averaged 18.1 points per game and sophomore Haley Harrison, who was also named first-team all-county and All-Hoosier Heritage Conference, scored 8.2 to help lead the team.

“(Coach Kehrt) has had a great influence on me, he’s helped me improve my game all four years,” McMurray said, who will play college basketball at Illinois Wesleyan University. “Practices are intense, he always pushes us. Even if it’s a simple drill or play, he wants us to give 100 percent all the time.”

But he can also have fun, which is needed after a long, grueling season. McMurray and Harrison said their coach could be spotted singing the Maroon 5 song “Sugar” on the sideline before a game.

“He can hit that high note too,” McMurray joked.

New Palestine also completed the county sweep of Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon and Eastern Hancock for the first time since 2007. It finished second behind Pendleton Heights in the HHC standings at 6-1 and fell to the Arabians for a chance at its first crown since 1993 — the first year of the conference. However, the Dragons’ 6-0 start in the HHC was the best in program history.

And although this year was one for the books, Kehrt said the future of New Palestine looks bright, too. At least eight rotation players will return next season and the junior varsity team, after struggling to piece one together four seasons ago, finished its regular season 17-3.

“These kids really liked each other this year,” Kehrt said. “If the kids put in the amount of work they did last summer, I think we can be good. I am talking for a long time. I think now our program is at a place where is it going to be competitive. That was the goal.

“The next goal is a state championship.”

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Kris Mills is a sports reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 317-477-3230 or kmills@greenfieldreporter.com.