Dragons win battle of unbeatens

NEW PALESTINE — Facing a Pendleton Heights onslaught, the New Palestine football team hit a key point with the game on the line.

Leading by seven in the third quarter, quarterback Zach Neligh told the offense it was time to carry the team.

The Dragons responded and pulled away to a 41-21 victory.

Neligh tossed an 18-yard pass to Kade Large to get the Dragons rolling, and Luke Canfield broke a 33-yard touchdown run to restore a two-score lead. The defense forced a stop, and Canfield broke a 52-yard run to set up another score and put the game away.

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“Responding to adversity was really good,” Dragons coach Kyle Ralph said. “Our offense showed great leadership. Zach Neligh stepped up and said our defense has carried us the whole season, it’s time we carried them. We marched the ball with authority. That was really good to see, especially with a young group of kids. That’s a make-or-break drive for our kids.”

After stopping Pendleton Heights on downs, the Dragons marched 73 yards in 13 plays to cap off the game with a Josh Glover touchdown.

“I told them in the huddle ‘everybody in the United States knows we are going to run the ball to win this game.’ It’s up to you guys to do it,” Ralph said. “That last drive was picture-perfect. We just went to work. That’s the weight room, conditioning, determination from the kids all coming out.”

Canfield ran for 300 yards and four touchdowns – his third four-touchdown game of the season – most coming in the second half.

He scored twice in the first half to help stake the Dragons to a 21-0 lead, and PH responded, using a 44-yard pass to Connor Jamison to set up a 3-yard run by quarterback Christian Conkling.

Pendleton Heights then recovered the loose ball on the ensuing kickoff, converted a fourth-and-14 on a pass to Eli Pancol, which set up another touchdown run by Conkling to cut the New Palestine lead to 21-14.

The Dragon offense ran for 352 yards in the victory. Every offensive drive ended in Pendleton Heights territory. New Palestine turned the ball over on downs twice in the first half – including once on the 1-yard line –but scored twice on Canfield 12 and 8-yard runs to go up 14-0.

New Palestine then added a score on a fumbled punt snap, which Landan Burton recovered on the 16, setting up a 5-yard run for Neligh with 1:16 to go in the half.

Ralph was pleased with the Dragons’ offensive line production.

“We were very demanding, put a lot of challenges on our offensive line in practice,” Ralph said. “Once again, we walk out, and Pendleton Heights plays a defense they have not played almost at all. They have not really shown that exact look at any point in time this season. We had to adjust to that, had to get out of our original gameplan, it takes time to do that, but major positive, offensively, we didn’t stall to make the adjustments.”

New Palestine’s defense got in on the act, with five sacks, including two by Luke Ely. It held Pendleton Heights to minus-34 rushing yards, its second straight week holding a team in the red on the ground. The Arabians gained 166 total yards, as Conkling threw for 200 and one touchdown – a final-minute score to Pancol.

The Dragons are now 3-0 in HHC play and 5-0 overall, having won their 41st consecutive regular-season game. That also puts them in sole possession of first place in the HHC with four weeks left. The Dragons travel to Greenfield-Central next week.

“That was the biggest thing was to be 1-0 and put ourselves in the driver’s seat in the conference. That’s something we take a lot of pride in,” Ralph said. “This is a championship-level game. Pendleton Heights is a really good program.”