NEW PALESTINE — From the opening pitch, the top-ranked New Palestine Dragons were loose.
At home with a standing room only crowd encircling the diamond and sporting spirit hats while in the dugout, victory wasn’t a given.
It was a collective mindset.
Losing to the Lebanon Tigers on the road a year ago, 7-1, at the same stage in the state tournament, the Dragons lived up to the rematch hype.
They defended their home field, their ranking, their winning streak and, more importantly, their June ambition.
“This year we talked about making payments. We want to buy something that’s very expensive in June. And you can’t just show up and pay for it. You have to make payments along the way,” New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum said. “Those payments come through the fall, winter and spring, and that’s exactly what this team has done.”
On Tuesday during the Class 3A regional title game, the Dragons collected dividends as they knocked off the defending state champion Lebanon Tigers 8-1 to advance into Saturday’s Jasper Semistate.
New Palestine racked up 11 hits, including a pair of home runs to boost their state-record total to 51, and captured their eighth regional championship in program history. The title was their first since 2011.
“Whenever you have a tough loss to end your season after the great year we had last year, it certainly motivates you,” Marcum said. “These players have really stepped up and taken it upon themselves to work hard and keep improving. It’s been such a great group to coach.”
Not so much to face one through nine as the Dragons proved relentless against the fourth-ranked Tigers (21-5), who showcased a top-flight freshman ace in Abigail McPherson.
With a 20-4 record prior to the regional, McPherson mowed down 169 batters in 139.1 innings pitched this season with a 2.11 ERA.
Against the Dragons, she didn’t record a single strikeout and could do little to slow down the top of New Palestine’s order.
Abby Davis, Ashley Prange and Emily O’Connor were 8-for-11 from the one through three holes and Michaela Jones crushed a solo home run from the sixth spot to highlight the Dragon’s four-run bottom of the second.
Madison Whitaker kicked off the onslaught with an RBI fielder’s choice in the first inning to score Prange, who crossed home plate three times in the game. From there the Dragons broke the game open.
“We just didn’t want to go out like we did last year,” O’Connor said. “We worked so hard for this, and I think it paid off tonight as the scoreboard showed. We hit every day. We knew we could do it. It was just a matter of coming out and showing we can.”
In the top of the second, the Dragons put together five hits to go up 5-0. Jones led off the frame with a bomb over the right-center field fence, and Prange drove in another run with two outs as she roped a double to left field.
A two-run single by O’Connor capped the rally, but the team’s second leader in home runs wasn’t finished.
The sophomore blasted a three-run home run off the scoreboard in left field in the top of the fourth to put New Palestine (28-2) up 8-0. The long ball was her 14th this season.
“Like I tell the team, you have to have someone on base to hit a three-run homer,” Marcum said. “Abby and Ashley came through with some big hits there, and I think (Emily) dented the scoreboard with her shot. That’s fine with me.”
Jones nearly added another home run in the third inning. However, a smooth catch over the left-field fence by Payten Redman robbed Jones of her seventh on the year.
“Their shortstop made a couple of plays and then the catch the left fielder made over the fence, they did that to us last year, too,” Marcum said. “Without those plays, we would have run ruled them and ended it in five. They played well defensively, but we just kept pounding the ball, and that’s what we’ve done all year.”
Senior ace Elisha Barker won her 19th game by staying within her comfort zone, working the corners and mixing her speeds. She scattered six hits, walked one and struck out three.
She found herself in trouble just once in the top of the sixth as Lebanon strung together three straight hits to score their lone run off an RBI single by Mckenzie Jones with two outs.
“We knew we would have to play our best because every team is going to give us their best. It’s postseason. It’s play or go home right now, so we knew we were going to come in and play our game,” Barker said. “If we did that, then we were going to be better than them. When we all play together, we’re hard to beat.”
The Dragons are nearly invincible at home, as well, pushing their home field winning streak to 34 straight while rolling to 20 consecutive wins to date.
They are 13-1 on the road, which bodes well for a program determined to chase down its first state title since 2009.
“We always seemed to hit that bump in the road in the past, but after beating Center Grove (on April 26), I think we just took off,” New Palestine senior Mary Crumlin said. “We’ve shown everything we’ve put in during the offseason, making payments. Hopefully, we can keep making them.”
The Dragons open against Edgewood (18-8) at 11 a.m. on Saturday in the semifinal round of the Jasper Semistate. Evansville Memorial (18-8) and Silver Creek (20-5) play in the second semifinal at 1 p.m. with the championship set for 7 p.m.
New Palestine 8, Lebanon 1
WP: Elisha Barker (19-2) LP: Abigail McPherson (20-5)
HR: Emily O’Connor, Michaela Jones (NP). 2B: Ashley Prange 2 (NP), Payten Redman (LHS).
Notables: Brooke Montgomery 2-4 (LHS); Abby Davis 2-4, 2 runs, Prange 3-3, 3 runs, O’Connor 3-4, 5 RBI, M. Jones 1-3, RBI, Barker 7.0 IP, 6 H, BB, 3 K (NP).