NEW PALESTINE — Some days Kyle Ralph has to stop and remind himself just how young his football team will be this season.
Old enough to suit up and drape a New Palestine practice jersey over their shoulder pads, many players don’t even have their driver’s licences yet. But youth isn’t an excuse, Ralph says, who is entering his fifth season as Dragons head coach with a 50-3 record.
While graduation siphoned 14 seniors from last year’s roster — a majority of them starters — a new crop of Dragons are driving the program forward, and despite learning curve frustrations, moments of brilliance have been abound this preseason.
“At the end of the day, you have to show up every week to play. You have to be prepared. You have to be focused. You have to execute. It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior, a sophomore or whatever you are, you have to go out there and do your job,” Ralph said. “That’s what we’ve lived on. We’ve had a lot of young kids play before but they’ve gone in and played their role, and we’ve won because of that.”
Four consecutive undefeated regular seasons attest to the Dragons’ ability to reload, and this year is no different as New Palestine looks to extend its Hoosier Heritage Conference dominance to five years straight and chase down a potential fourth sectional title in five years.
“I certainly think this group has the ability to do it. It just comes down to can they prepare like a veteran knows how to prepare? Can they put themselves in position to win games like that?,” Ralph said. “It’s one of those things where you have to take everything for what it is, coach harder, correct those rookies mistakes and continue to go out there and perform. We’ve been really pleased about it so far. Our kids have had a great attitude about it.”
Cut short of a sectional four-peat last season with an opening round loss to rival Columbus East, the Dragons are facing a new sectional in 2017 and their third year in Class 5A, but they’re taking the necessary steps.
The key word Ralph and his coaching staff have utilized during training camp is opportunity. So far, the players have responded with their commitment to the weight room, which has them in position to build their own legacy.
On offense all but two starters are brand new, including at nearly every skilled position, but they’re not exactly inexperienced.
At receiver, 5-foot-11, 171-pound junior Colby Jenkins (322 yards, 4 TDs) returns, along with 6-1, 259-pound junior Austin Keele at center.
From there, new names will highlight the depth chart, especially up front.
Sophomore Jacob Brittsan (6-2, 223 pounds) will start at left tackle, junior Alex Cotterman (5-11, 279 pounds) is at left guard, freshman Noah Mack (6-1, 201 pounds) is at right guard, and sophomore Kyle King (6-3, 211 pounds) is at right tackle.
“We’re real young. We actually don’t have a senior offensive lineman,” Ralph said. “We’re young but we’re talented up front. They’re a bunch of hard workers and kids that have really changed their bodies in the weight room to get themselves ready to play.”
Under center Zach Neligh, a 6-1, 170-pound junior, is projected to led the offense after spending last season as departed senior Gunnar Large’s backup.
Neligh challenged for the starting spot in 2016, losing out to Large, but the battle-hardened experience put him in the right state of mind this summer as he out dueled new backup quarterback Eric Roudebush, a 6-2, 179-pound sophomore.
“I think it was really hard for (Zach) as a sophomore fighting for the job against a senior he looked up to and respected a lot,” Ralph said. “I think it was tough, but you can tell a year of going through the system at the varsity level and having to be prepared as the backup last year really helped his maturity process. You can just tell this year he was a bit of a different player.”
Neligh’s primary targets will be senior JT Hoffman (6-2, 161 pounds), senior Jaxon Manes (6-2, 157 pounds), Jenkins, and sophomore Kade Large (6-2, 165 pounds).
Sophomore Maxen Hook (6-1, 163 pounds), sophomore Brody Luker (6-0, 150 pounds), sophomore Ryker Large (5-10, 127 pounds), and freshman Matt Brown (6-2, 186 pounds) provide additional depth.
A stable of running backs will handle rushing duties with senior Josh Glover (5-4, 187 pounds) leading the committee. A standout linebacker as a junior, Glover racked up 56 total tackles, three interceptions and two sacks.
“It’s a guy who has a really good linebacker mentality, now with the football in his hands. It gives your offense that kind of physical identity. We’ve seen if manifest itself a few times this offseason,” Ralph said. “He’s a tremendous competitor and one of the best weight room guys we’ve had in the program.”
Behind Glover are junior Luke Ely (6-0, 200 pounds), junior CJ Faubion (5-9, 188 pounds), sophomore Aven Jones (5-11, 190 pounds), and sophomore Luke Canfield (5-9, 151 pounds).
On defense four starters are back, including 5-11, 190-pound Logan Robinson (41 tackles, 5.0 for a loss) at nose guard. He will be joined by seniors Landan Burton (6-3, 235 pounds), a standout wrestler, and Bryson Cooper (5-5, 208 pounds).
Ely (85 tackles, 4,0 sacks), who was named All-HHC along with Keele, captains the linebacker corp as a third-year returning starter along with Faubion (84 tackles, 5.0 sacks). Kade Large (32 tackles) joins the rotation after starting at safety last season.
Glover could go both ways, depending on game-planning and needs, while Jones and Brown could fill in as well.
The secondary will be new with the exception of Jenkins (26 tackles, INT) at cornerback. Hoffman, Manes, Hooks and Luker round out the pass defense.
“(Hoffman) came back out as a senior and he’s going both ways. He’s been a welcomed surprise for us,” Ralph said. “Of our five, four have never really played varsity football before.”
Sophomore Alex Kropp will serve as placekicker, while Roudebush punts. Senior Levi McKinney returns at long snapper.
“A big thing we talk about is leaving your legacy. Their opportunity now is to write the story for the 2017 team,” Ralph said. “This is their opportunity to leave their mark on New Pal football, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what this team is made of. I’m really proud of how they stepped up and not made excuses for their youth and tried to get the job done.”