INDIANAPOLIS — Huddled near home plate amidst a cloud of dust, the New Palestine Dragons’ silhouettes radiated on Saturday evening as they gazed upward at their prize glistening in the sun overhead.
“We did it!” a voice cried out from the group before they carefully lowered their coveted trophy at eye level.
Taking turns cradling the state championship hardware with senior ace Elisha Barker leading the celebration, senior center fielder Kaylee Kropp gently grabbed hold of the award before the enormity of their achievement came to light.
“What do we do now?” Kropp quipped, rousing laughter from those around her.
After dedicating more than a year of training, hitting, practicing and team bonding to reach their goal, the Dragons were still in game mode — even at the end.
Fueled by a unified mantra — Make Payments — through preseason workouts and the last three months of the season, it was time to cash in, and the Dragons were in a surplus on Saturday during the Class 3A state finals at Ben Davis High School.
For the fourth time in program history, the Dragons were unmatched. They were champions, defeating Kanakakee Valley 13-6 to erase their eight-year state title drought.
“We worked so hard for this. Coming out our senior year and getting the win is probably the best way to do it, and that’s the way we wanted to do it,” New Palestine senior first baseman Mary Crumlin said. “It’s unbelievable. We finished it.”
The 21st time the Dragons have posted double-digit runs in a game this season marked the team’s 23rd straight victory. They set three 3A championship game team records in the process, tied another and added two more state records en route to their prolific finale.
Kankakee Valley (22-9), a state runner-up in 2016, tried to use experience to derail the Dragons’ juggernaut lineup, but there was no defense against collective persistence. Nor their explosive offense.
The Dragons simply refused to be denied.
“Obviously, hitting is our No. 1 thing,” Crumlin said. “We know if someone comes back at us, no one is better than us, we can come back, come out and hit and play our game.”
Tied 2-2 in the top of the fourth, New Palestine stayed true to its strengths, erupting for a decisive eight-run swing and finishing the game with a 3A state finals record 17 hits to give them a state-record 465.
Only needing five hits to tie the state record for most in a single season, set by New Palestine in 2010 at 453, the modern-day Dragons reached the mark in the top of the second with an Abby Davis two-run single to give them a 2-0 lead.
An Emily O’Connor single in the top of the third put them over the top.
In the fourth, junior shortstop Ashley Prange rewrote history, once more, capping the Dragons’ rally by cranking a three-run home run — her state-leading 21st — over the center-field fence.
The blast powered her team ahead 7-2 and propelled her RBI season total to 67, surpassing former Dragon and assistant coach Michelle (Marcum) Hokl’s record of 65.
“Coming into the game I knew she needed two RBIs, and I wanted her to break it the whole game. There’s no kid I wanted to break it more than her,” Hokl said.
“Michelle said on the bus over, I’d like it to happen in the first inning. It took a little longer than that,” New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum joked.
While never an expectation, the home run seemed inevitable. With 27 games of at least one home run belted by a Dragons’ hitter this season prior to Saturday, Prange just needed a little nudge to crush the team’s state-record 57th.
Called out on third strike in her prior at-bat, Prange, who was 3-for-4, ran the count 2-0 before unloading.
“I was kind of mad, honestly, because of the strike that was called at my eyes. I didn’t want them to call me out again,” said Prange, an Ohio State recruit. “(Coach Marcum) just smiled at me, and told me to swing away.”
Barker backed up Prange’s one-out bomb with a two-out RBI-single. Michaela Jones, who was 2-for-5, drove in another with a double, and Crumlin lined her second double — tying the 3A state record — to drive in the inning’s final run.
The Dragons sent 12 batters to the plate as the lead swelled to 10-2.
Their seven hits in the frame tied a 3A state finals record. A Madison Whitaker RBI-single in the top of the fifth secured the 3A title game’s mark for most runs as the Dragons also set a new record with 10 RBIs total to top their own standard of nine in the 2009 championship.
“We don’t focus on home runs. We focus on hitting the ball hard and making them field it. We want to make them work for it,” Barker said. “We put the ball in play and made things happen.”
Motivation was a given after three years of frustration for the seniors, including Barker, Crumlin, Whitaker, Davis and Kropp. Unable to get beyond the sectional in 2014 and 2015, the eventual Class 3A state champion Lebanon Tigers halted them in last year’s regional.
After a loss to Zionsville 9-7 on April 19, the Dragons regrouped, never losing the rest of the way.
“This group of seniors have been outstanding leaders, all five of them. I’m really happy for them,” Marcum said. “To be a senior and you have an opportunity to end with a win and a state championship, there’s no better feeling.”
Prior to Saturday’s state championship, the Dragons watched a video of the 2009 team clinch the program’s third title, which Barker and others witnessed in person as youth players.
While the game film sharpened their focus, their intentions were imprinted long beforehand along with their approach.
“You can never get ahead of yourself or you will make mistakes. I think that’s the mentality we had coming into it. We just stuck with it no matter what happened,” Barker said.
Barker, who was named the 3A Mental Attitude Award winner, nailed down her 22nd victory this season and 11th complete game with four strikeouts.
Her final pitch on a 1-0 count to Kankakee Valley’s Sarah Starr was her 124th in the game, which was harmlessly lined into the dirt toward O’Connor at third base. A quick scoop and throw by the sophomore to the outreached arm of Crumlin at first base punctuated the night and sparked a long-awaited dogpile atop of Barker.
“Paid in full. Final payment made,” Ed Marcum remarked. “That’s what we talked about this year, and especially today. We had one payment left, and we were able to come out, take care of it and get that very expensive item in June.”
New Palestine 13, Kankakee Valley 6
WP: Elisha Barker (22-2) LP: Emma Maple (17-6)
HR: Ashley Prange (NP). 2B: Emily O’Connor, Michaela Jones, Mary Crumlin 2 (NP); Emma Maple, Ashley Fisher (KV). SB: Tatum Biddle (NP).
RBI: Abby Davis 2, Ashley Prange 3, Madison Whitaker, Elisha Barker, Michaela Jones, Tatum Biddle (NP); Emma Maple 2, Ashley Fisher (KV).
Notables: A. Davis 2-4, 2 runs; A. Prange 3-4, 2 runs; E. O’Connor 2-5, run; M. Whitaker 2-5, E. Barker 1-5, 7.0 IP, 2 ER, 4 K; Tianna Hart 1-1, run; Mi. Jones 2-5, run; M. Crumlin 3-4, 2 runs; Emma Tucher 1-3, 2 runs; T. Biddle 0-2, run; Sarah Greene 0-0, run (NP).