NEW PALESTINE — Ed Marcum knew it was time for a change. Not necessarily a deviation from the norm, the New Palestine head softball coach remarked, but a return to the fundamental core of the game was needed.

After 13 seasons of no less than 22 wins, some of the enjoyment of the past had dwindled under tasking expectation.

Softball had become a job. The players felt it, and so did Marcum, who was entering his 14th year leading the Dragons.

To correct the trend, Marcum had two priorities for his team this spring. The first served as the program’s mantra, “make payments,” meaning hard work now will pay off in June. The second is what made the Dragons who they were in 2017.

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“I wanted this to be a really fun year. Honestly, I wanted to have fun again. I had gotten to where some of the pressure of always having to have 25 wins had taken a little bit of the fun away,” Marcum said. “It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”

The Dragons embraced the concept, rediscovering their inner Little Leaguer en route to the school’s fourth softball state championship.

Relaxed and loose, the pieces fell into place for a special season, but not even Marcum and his assistant coaches could imagine what would transpire.

New Palestine won a school-record 31 games with only two losses, broke the program’s previous mark in batting average with a .437 clip and tied the team’s single-season record with 83 doubles.

Five team state records fell during their Class 3A championship run, including most home runs in a single season (57), runs batted in (355), runs scored (383), hits (465) and at-bats (1,064).

The Dragons put together the longest single-season win streak in program history at 23 straight and set three 3A state championship records for hits (17), runs (13) and runs batted in (10).

“It was the most fun I’ve had in quite awhile,” said Marcum, the 2017 All-Hancock County Softball Coach of the Year.

A former assistant coach in 2002 and 2003, Marcum led the Dragons to their first state championship in 2004 before winning consecutive titles in 2008 and 2009 with his daughters Alyssa (Marcum) Dillard and Michelle (Marcum) Hokl.

With all three coaching the current Dragons, the team won its 357th game compared to 58 losses in Marcum’s tenure, ending with a 13-6 win against Kankakee Valley for the state title.

His teams have won eight sectional titles, seven regional titles, advanced to five state finals and appeared in four state championship games. The Dragons won their fourth-straight Hoosier Heritage Conference title this season with an outright 7-0 finish.

Recently, Marcum, a 1979 New Palestine graduate, spoke to the Daily Reporter about the Dragons’ unforgettable season.

What were some of the concerns you had coming into this season?

EM: I really felt good about the year going in. Obviously, when you lose the seniors that we lost last year, you have some holes to fill. I guess one of my biggest concerns was catcher, especially when Mia (Long) told me she was going to focus on volleyball. And Casey (Lehman) was a four-year starter and an absolute (star) behind the plate. To take over for Casey wasn’t going to be easy for anyone to do, much less a freshman. But to (Michaela Jones’) credit, who never caught before and had to play a completely different position than she was used to, to step up and do the job she did was incredible. I think she had two passed balls all year, and that’s a testament to our pitchers also when you have a rookie catcher back there.

Beyond the state title, what was the most pleasant part of this season?

EM: Overall, I knew we were going to be talented. I guess the one thing I was most happy with was how the team got along. We had absolutely no issues. No drama. They got along very well. As a coach that makes your job much easier. It was just a blast to coach this team.

How important was team chemistry to your historic season?

EM: I’ve said it for a several years, if you can combine chemistry with talent, you have a chance to do something really special. I believe this team this year was able to accomplish just that because of how much they work together.

What was the biggest surprise from your team this season?

EM: Again, it was Michaela to be honest as far as catching. She struggled a little bit in the preseason. I think (Michaela) was a little overwhelmed at first, but she’s a gamer and stayed late every day. Her competitive nature took over, so that was not only my biggest concern but my biggest surprise also was the job she did.

Obviously, you don’t expect anyone to hit 21 home runs in a season either. You don’t expect Emily O’Connor to go from one home run as a freshman in limited at-bats and have 14 home runs and hit .558 either. Those were definitely pleasant surprises for me also, and just everyone stepping up like they did.

Is this in your opinion going to be the best offensive hitting team the state will ever see?

EM: Well, if you just look at the numbers we’ve been very fortunate through the years to have some great offensive teams. But if you just look at the numbers and what confidence did for this group, I was looking at it through the state tournament; we scored 104 runs and gave up 14. That’s just unheard of. The combination of not only offense but pitching and defense to go along with it was incredible.

Do the state records make this state championship more special than the other three?

EM: You see pro athletes get asked that a lot. How does this one compare to the other ones? They’re all difficult to achieve. They’re all really special. The first one in 2004 I was a rookie coach, and in my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have anticipated being able to win a state championship. Then in 2008, having Alyssa as a senior and kids that were in the eighth grade watching that first state championship to be able to come through was special. Then to win back-to-back, which is something teams don’t do very often, in 2008 and 2009 was remarkable.

People tell me it’s been a long eight years (laughter), but as I said before, I’m just so excited for this group of players, the school and my dad (Ray). He gets so excited for us. I’m always excited as much for him as I am for myself just because it makes him so happy.

When you look at what’s coming back, how realistic is a repeat run?

EM: You start thinking about that probably not that night but as a coach you start thinking about it the next day. I know (Mackenzie) is going to step up. We were very deep with our pitching. Cameron Green didn’t get a lot of varsity pitching, but she’s another one that will be a senior along with Mackenzie. Then we have some really strong underclassmen also. We actually had nine pitchers this year. That’s going to give us a lot of depth that most programs don’t have. I feel good about what we have coming back.

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.