JASPER — The seniors didn’t mask their intentions. Buzzing toward the dugout to retrieve the team’s water cooler in frenzied elation, Ed Marcum, their intended target, saw the forthcoming shower from a mile away.
Glancing over his shoulder, the New Palestine softball coach didn’t budge an inch. Instead, he just smiled.
“Bring it,” Marcum exclaimed before he was doused Saturday night.
After eight years of waiting, there was no better icy jolt to end what Marcum and his team coined a 132-mile business trip.
The top-ranked Class 3A Dragons were finally getting another shot at a state championship, an opportunity they’ve been seeking since a near miss in 2010 and another on the same diamond in 2011.
“Every year we talk about it in our very first meeting about an opportunity to play for a state title. I’m a firm believer, if things go your way, and you work hard enough and we catch some breaks along the way, that we had that chance,” Marcum said. “I’m just so proud of the girls. They stayed with it.”
More accurately, they nailed it, crushing Edgewood 16-0 in five innings in the afternoon semifinals before beating Evansville Memorial 10-1 to win the Jasper Semistate title.
The Dragons scored their 91st run in the state tournament — compared to a mere eight surrendered — to reach the pinnacle. And they did it their way.
New Palestine slugged four home runs in the title game to push their state-record mark to 56. The Dragons hit five home runs overall with a three-run blast by Mary Crumlin in the opener.
Their power was undeniable, and historic, as they continue to shatter the state record books with every swing. Their home run total has dwarfed Plainfield’s previous mark of 37 longballs in 2016. The Dragons’ 370 total runs scored this season topped Garrett’s record of 364 set in 1988.
They’ve won 22 consecutive games, the longest streak in a single season for the program and the second longest in school history (32 games over 2008 and 2009).
“We stuck with it and we never really doubted it. We knew we could do it. We just had to put everything together, and we did,” Dragons shortstop Ashley Prange said.
Their determination to break through has them one victory away from claiming a potential fourth championship this coming Saturday in the IHSAA State Finals at Ben Davis. The Dragons will play Kankakee Valley (22-8) at 4:30 p.m., last year’s 3A state runner-up, in their sixth state finals appearance and fifth title game overall.
“This is crazy. It’s like a lifelong dream. I was at the last state championship (in 2009), and I was a teeny, tiny softball player watching from the stands,” New Palestine ace Elisha Barker said. “I’ve always wanted to do it. That’s been my goal throughout my entire career.”
Barker cemented her and the team’s ambition with a prolific performance Saturday. Finishing 3-for-6 at semistate — 2-for-4 in the title game — Barker drove in seven runs and hit a pair of home runs total, including a back-breaking one-out grand slam in the top of the seventh of the finale.
Her slam came with the Dragons up 6-1 against Evansville Memorial, marking her eighth home run this season.
“I was in a bit of a slump before this, and my team always picks me up, so it was nice to be the one to be able to pick them up,” said Barker, who is hitting .458 this year. “It felt good, but I couldn’t do it alone.”
The Dragons had at least one runner on base six of the championship game’s seven frames. Catcher Michaela Jones, who went 4-for-4 in the finals, was the first to touch them all with a solo home run out to dead center field in the top of the second.
Barker’s first home run, a two-run laser to center field broke a momentary 1-1 tie in the top of the fourth.
“It was just a new ballgame,” Barker said. “We knew we were going to score runs. That’s what we’ve always done, and I knew I had a great defense behind me, so if I threw my pitches and they do what they’re suppose to do, the team is going to get outs. It’s going to happen, and we’re going to score runs.”
Barker picked up both wins to improve to 21-2 on the year. She pitched a two-hitter over 4.0 innings in the semifinal and held Evansville Memorial to four hits and one run through 7.0 innings in the final. She struck out a combined eight batters and retired eight straight at one point in the championship.
“When we came down here today, I told them I thought we were the best team. But the best team doesn’t always win, so you have to come out and take care of business,” Marcum said. “We talked all week about this being a business trip, and that’s exactly what they did today.”
Prange swatted her state-leading 20th home run in the top of the fifth, a two-run towering shot out in center field to put New Palestine ahead 5-1.
“I’d been struggling a little bit these past couple of games, not really making solid contact, so it was a relief to finally hit another one solid,” said Prange, who is hitting .652 this postseason. “(Elisha’s) was amazing, though. Coach told me to tag (at third), and I said, ‘no, that one’s deep.’ That one was way gone.”
The same can be said for years of frustration. After winning their first state title in 2004, Marcum first season at the helm, the Dragons won back-to-back state championship in 2008 and 2009.
They reached the semistate finals in 2010, but since have been stumped by the likes of Center Grove in sectional, when New Palestine moved up to 4A, and were cut short by eventual 3A champ Lebanon in regional last spring.
This time, the Dragons left no doubt, while helping Marcum fulfill a birthday wish for his father, Ray, who was in attendance after turning 87 on Friday.
“I was so fortunate early. To win one the very first year, and then to follow it up with back-to-back in ‘08 and ‘09, you kind of think, ‘is it suppose to be this easy?’ It isn’t,” said Marcum, who owns a 356-58 career record in 14 seasons. “This was their goal, to take advantage of the opportunity they had, but it’s not over. We’re not in this to finish second. I know Kankakee Valley is really good, so it will be a good game.”