NEW PALESTINE — Nor rain, nor muddy field, nor two-week layoff, could stop them as the top-ranked Class 5A New Palestine Dragons delivered.
The host Dragons, who sat dormant last weekend, scored on five of their first eight possessions Friday night, including 31 points in the second quarter, en route to a decisive 54-14 victory against Muncie Central in the Sectional 12 semifinals.
The unbeaten Dragons (10-0) will return home at Kelso Stadium, again, next Friday for the sectional finals when they face Zionsville (6-5), who knocked off Anderson 35-0 in the other semifinal.
“The two weeks we were off, we actually got better,” New Palestine senior linebacker Josh Glover said. “We wanted to come out stronger than we did last year, of course, and not necessarily make a statement, but show that we’re improving each game.”
The Dragons’ Red Rage defense came out and shut down the visiting Bearcats, despite slippery field conditions, forcing nine punts overall. Ryker Large grabbed an interception, and Glover and senior Landan Burton combined for a safety early in the fourth quarter.
“Our practice field is actually worse than this,” Glover joked. “We just kept our feet under us more and didn’t take as many short cuts.”
The Dragons offense rolled from the opening drive, scoring first with a nine-play series, spanning 72 yards and spending 2 minutes, 21 seconds off the clock. Quarterback Zach Neligh capped the possession with an 18-yard run.
Neligh finished the night with 105 yards rushing and two touchdowns. His second measured 10 yards to put New Palestine ahead 38-7 in the second quarter.
Luke Canfield, however, was the heavyweight, sliding past the Bearcats loaded box for 242 yards and two touchdowns. His first was setup after Large’s pick in the second quarter, which he returned 35 yards to put the Dragons on Muncie Central’s 10.
Canfield plowed through the middle for a 5-yard touchdown in the second quarter — his 28th of the season — as New Palestine built a 17-0 lead.
His second touchdown sprint covered 50 yards as he tucked the ball and zipped past several would-be tacklers on first-and-15 in the third quarter to put New Palestine up 45-7.
“The bye week was good for us. We got a chance to practice and get back to some of the fundamental things and routine things,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “It can be a distraction, but it fell on fall break for us, too, so getting both of those out of the way in the same week was a good thing for us.”
The Dragons showed few ill-effects from their down time, but they were far from perfect.
On offense, the Dragons lost six snaps due to wet conditions, but they recovered all of them. Neligh threw two interceptions, one that Muncie Central’s Adrian Leavell returned 55 yards in the second quarter for the Bearcats’ lone touchdown against the Dragons’ starters.
“For not being up to game speed for two weeks, I thought our kids responded pretty well to all of that,” Ralph said. “We scored early there, and then the weather killed us with bad snaps, fumbled snaps, slipping and sliding around, not being able to actually churn out any yards with our legs because of our footing. That killed some drives for us early on.”
Slowed but never stopped, the Dragons other phases of the game balanced out the mistakes. Alex Kropp drilled a 31-yard field goal to give New Palestine a 10-0 lead in the second quarter and blocked punt by Brody Luker, which he returned for 5 yards and a score pushed the advantage to 24-0.
“We wanted to start early. They are a dangerous team. They have great athletes out there for sure. If you let those guys make plays early, they are going to give you a fight for as long as they can possibly go,” Ralph said. “We wanted to get them down as fast as we possibly could.”
A Neligh 45-yard strike to Colby Jenkins in the second quarter on first-and-10 from the Bearcats 45 to push the lead to 31-0 was one of many back-breaking plays.
“The defense kept us in the game with some three-and-outs, and the offense finally got their footing,” Ralph said. “Special teams played great tonight. It was a three-phase game for sure.”
Muncie Central was held to zero yards on offense in the first half and broke free for their first offensive first down in the second half. They didn’t score their first offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter with a majority of the Dragons’ starters on the sideline.
Xavier Cleaves ran for a 50-yard touchdown on second-and-3 to finalize the score before the final 7:56 were spent off the clock. Cleaves finished with 80 yards on 10 carries.
“The goal of being 1-0 every week is still there. We’ve done a good job of that the whole year. At this point, a win is a win. I don’t care if it’s by one point or 24, if you get to win, you get to play this game the next week,” Ralph said. “That’s what’s most important right now.”