NEW PALESTINE — With their state championship aspirations hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter, the top-ranked New Palestine Dragons answered the call.
Unfortunately, so did the Zionsville Eagles.
With 3 minutes and 32 seconds left in the Class 5A Sectional 12 championship on Friday night, the unbeaten Dragons marched 51 yards downfield to take a 24-23 lead as junior quarterback Zach Neligh connected with senior Jaxon Manes for a 14-yard touchdown strike in the corner of the end zone.
Leaving Zionsville (7-5) with 50 seconds on the clock, the Eagles used less than 40 seconds to respond and reclaimed the lead on a game-winning 48-yard field goal by sophomore Chris Freeman en route to a 26-24 championship victory.
Story continues below gallery
“Deep down it hurts, but it makes us proud as a team to even be in a game like that because we’re playing three ways against a team that had us outmatched and kids that were probably physically better than us,” New Palestine junior Colby Jenkins remarked as he left Kelso Stadium. “We just played our hearts out and left everything on the field tonight.”
The Eagles, playing with their fourth-string quarterback, sophomore Cole Wiseman, were the underdogs in the rankings, but on paper held a significant advantage in both enrollment and depth.
As a 5A team due to the IHSAA success factor, the Dragons (10-1) dressed fewer than 50 players. Visiting Zionsville had more than 100, and they used their strengths to build an early 10-0 advantage.
Wiseman, in only his third game under center, completed 13 of 33 passes with two touchdowns, beginning with a 5-yard dart to Jordan Hull. Named the team’s starter after several Eagles quarterbacks were lost late in the season due to injuries, Wiseman and the Zionsville running game imposed their will against New Palestine initially.
Down 10-0 after Freeman converted a 38-yard field goal with 3:19 left in the first quarter, the Dragons narrowed the gap 10-7 on a 11-play drive, aided by three Zionsville penalties, as Neligh connected with Manes for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Dragons, who averaged 179.3 yards passing per game, posted 116, scoring on three of their first six drives.
However, it was the Red Rage defense that clamped down led by Jenkins to keep the Eagles silent until late in the first half.
Jenkins picked off Wiseman twice in the game, including on third-and-6 from Zionsville’s 36 to setup an Alex Kropp 37-yard field goal to tie the game 10-all with 6:10 left in the first half.
“It really lit a fire under everyone,” Jenkins said. “We were positive. We knew this was going to be a knock down, drag out, last possession of the game, who’s going to win it game. We knew we could come back. We’re that kind of team. We can persevere through anything.”
The Dragons grabbed their first lead of the night on their ensuing possession, capped by a 60-yard touchdown run by Neligh with 3:24 left before halftime.
“We talk about, you’re three kinds of people in our program. You’re a winner, a loser or a quitter. Two of the three happened. No matter how much work or effort you put into it, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose, and we were on the short end tonight, but what none of our kids are, are quitters,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “And that’s what I’m most proud of. They never will be.”
Nick Nelson knotted the game at 17-all before the half, on a 2-yard touchdown run for Zionsville to close a 12-play drive that spanned 2:40.
The Eagles pulled ahead 23-17 with 6:58 remaining in the third quarter as Wiseman found Mitchell Canada for a 9-yard touchdown completion.
The Red Rage retorted as neither defense blinked or budged. The Eagles sacked Neligh five times in the game, and Jenkins recorded another pick as Zionsville neared the Dragons red zone late in the third quarter.
The Dragons had a chance to pull in front after Jenkins’ pick and later on a long drive that stalled with a turnover on downs at the Eagles 7 with 8:57 left on the clock.
New Palestine rushed for 133 yards with Luke Canfield netting 67 yards, and they amassed 249 in total yards, but Zionsville churned out 360 to surpass their 314 average. The Dragons were averaging 500-plus yards of total offense a game.
“We just couldn’t get things going on the early downs tonight, on the ground especially,” Ralph said. “The inability to effectively run the ball play in and play out, which is one of our hallmarks, when you’re put behind the chains like that, it makes things a lot harder. I thought our passing game executed for the most part tonight, but we gave up sacks. We have to do a better preparing our kids.”
The Dragons ran a flawless two-minute drill at the end to take the lead during their 12-play scoring drive. Zionsville’s 8th penalty for their 80th yard setup the go-ahead touchdown pass by Neligh.
With Zionsville called for 12 men on the field, the Dragons stood at third-and-5 from the Eagles 14. Neligh didn’t miss his mark, finding Manes.
Manes finished with 40 yards on three catches and two scores. Jenkins had 47 yards on three receptions as Neligh completed 10 of 28 passes.
But the Eagles who were 7 of 17 on third downs, converted on third-and-8 from the Dragons 31 with Freeman’s clutch field goal.
“They made plays. We didn’t execute well on some things and they made them. They have a great kicker and he executed,” Ralph said. “That’s what it comes down to.
“We just went toe-to-toe with a roster that has 108 kids on it with 47,” Ralph said. “We took it down to the wire.”