NEW PALESTINE — Calling out names. It was New Castle’s first and last mistake as word traveled fast around New Palestine before last Friday night’s game.
With the nation’s second-best passer in quarterback Niah Williamson and one of the state’s premier playmakers in wide receiver Luke Bumbalough, New Castle certainly posed a threat, but the Dragons were well prepared and motivated.
Class 5A New Palestine completely revamped its defensive coverages last week, specifically tailored to slow down New Castle’s 396.3 yards passing per game average and nearly 50-plus passing attempts.
What the Dragons’ defensive players heard and read on social media in the days prior, however, awoke an already invigorated giant.
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“They had been calling our name out, so it gave us a little edge and got us fired up,” New Palestine senior defensive back Jaxon Manes said. “After their last game (against Mt. Vernon), they called out, ‘we want New Pal.’ That really drummed us up to practice as hard as we could, so we could go out there and show what New Pal was really about.”
In two words, New Palestine is Red Rage. And they personified both behind a decisive 56-24 victory to improve to 8-0 on the season and a perfect 6-0 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.
The agitated Dragons, who clinched an outright HHC title at New Castle’s expense last Friday, racked up 47 tackles on defense, five for a loss, three quarterback hurries, three sacks for negative 23 yards, and three interceptions.
“Truthfully, defense is what we do. Our offense gets the headlines, and they deserve the praise they earn, but we put a lot of pride in our defense, and without the way our defense plays, our offense wouldn’t be half of what it is,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “Defense is something we’re known for here, and it’s something that needs to continue. I think it will.”
With host Delta up this Friday at 7:30 p.m. in another HHC clash, the Dragons’ defense has another opportunity to showcase its fierce versatility. Moving from a pass-heavy foe to a predominantly rushing attack, the unit is breathing fire in anticipation.
Delta (5-3, 3-3 HHC) is led by the state’s leading rusher in Charlie Spegal, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound sophomore with 2,070 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Spegal has posted 200 or more yards rushing in six games and surpassed 300 yards three times with a game-high 353 against New Castle on Sept. 22 in a 56-49 win.
“That’s quite a challenge, but our defense is more suited for the run. We don’t have to change much because that’s what we’re best at defending,” New Palestine junior linebacker Luke Ely said. “We take tremendous pride. If a team scores, we’re all really annoyed and mad. We try to go out there and do our best to minimize their yards, so our offense can get out there and do their job and have more opportunities.”
The formula has been harmonious the past eight weeks as New Palestine’s offense ranks seventh in the state (49.0 points per game) and second in 5A. The defense is first in the 5A at 10.9 points allowed, which has equated in the state’s fifth-best margin of victory at 38.1.
The key to this year’s defensive prowess, Ralph said, stems from leadership from the top down with several underclassmen filing in behind at a rate of four to seven at a time.
Senior Josh Glover provides the lightning at linebacker, Ely is the thunder, while seniors J.T. Hoffman, Manes, nose tackle Logan Robinson, and defensive end Landan Burton drive the cart.
Their examples have instilled a swagger, which sophomores like defensive backs Maxen Hook, who leads the team with 51 total tackles, Ryker Large (five interceptions) and Brody Luker (31 tackles, three interceptions) have adopted.
“Our defense has maybe four seniors at times, sometimes less, depending on the game plan for that week,” Ralph said. “There are seven to eight underclassmen playing at a time, and that can be a concerning thing. The old football adage says for every sophomore you start, you lose a game. Well, we should have lost them all by now because we’re starting a ton of sophomores everywhere.”
Age doesn’t matter to the unbeaten Dragons and neither does their state ranking. Wins are the top priority, which they have captured through 33 straight HHC games and 44 consecutive regular-season contests. A victory on Friday would mark the program’s fifth straight undefeated regular season and ninth all time.
With one shutout this season — against Yorktown 43-0 on Sept. 1 — the Dragons would like to post another before heading into the Sectional 12 semifinals on Oct. 20. New Palestine has surrendered more than eight points three time this year and limited opponents to seven or less three times.
As a group, they have 25 sacks, 16 interceptions and 67 tackles for a loss.
“With a big guy like (Spegal), you have to wrap him up in the legs. You can’t hit him straight on, otherwise he’ll just steamroll you,” Manes remarked on the defense’s next target. “We’re going to horse tie his legs and get him down.”
“One shutout is good, but I definitely think we could have more.”
67: Total tackles for a loss the Dragons’ defense has amassed their year.
25: In eight games, the Dragons have hunted down opposing quarterbacks for 25 sacks with a team-best six against Pendleton Heights on Sept. 15.
16: The Red Rage can attack you both high and low, grabbing 16 interceptions. The unit snagged a season-best four against Whiteland on Aug. 18.
51: New Palestine sophomore Maxon Hook leads the defense with 51 total tackles, including a team-best 29 solos.
10: New Palestine junior Luke Ely and senior Landan Burton are tied for first in tackles for a loss at 10.5. Josh Glover has nine.
6: New Palestine’s Luke Ely is pacing the defense with 6.5 sacks while Landan Burton is second with 4.5.
5: Dragons sophomore Ryker Large has five interceptions on the season.
1: The New Palestine Dragons are ranked first in scoring defense in Class 5A with 10.9 points allowed per game. They are 20th overall in the state.