NEW PALESTINE — This was the year – or at least that’s what everyone told New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph before the football season began.

With the Class 5A Dragons down to seven seniors after graduation dropped the roster’s average age considerably, many outsiders looking in had two prognostications for 2017.

“Everyone said, this was going to be the senior group that either: A) (I’m) going to leave before they get to be seniors because he doesn’t want to lose, or B) they are going to lose because there’s no way they can win with these guys,” Ralph recalled. “Well, neither one of those two things happened.”

Instead, it was like any other year in southern Hancock County with Ralph at the helm as the Dragons posted their fifth straight undefeated regular season and finished ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press 5A rankings en route to a 10-1 record.

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“I don’t know if I can even explain, especially in retrospect, how really great this season actually was,” Ralph said. “This group of seniors had not been successful for really their entire football careers honestly. That was the group that was in junior high when I got the job here, and I remember going to watch them play, getting beat by 30 or 40 points. They didn’t win a single game in junior high or as sixth-graders.”

In their final prep season, however, seniors such as Logan Robinson, Levi McKinney, Landan Burton, Bryson Cooper, Jaxon Manes, Josh Glover and J.T. Hoffman became the heart of the team’s winning culture.

New Palestine scored the fifth-most points (525) in program history this season and pushed the team’s regular-season winning streak to 45 straight, dating back to 2013 — the longest active run in the state.

The Dragons clinched their fifth consecutive Hoosier Heritage Conference and won a conference-record 34th straight league games, earning Ralph the 2017 All-Hancock County Football Coach of the Year award.

In five seasons, Ralph has amassed a 60-4 record as a head coach and led the Dragons to their fourth sectional championship game appearance in five years.

He was named the HHC Coach of the Year this season after the Dragons ran roughshod at 7-0 in league play and had nine players make the All-HHC team out of 30 possible spots.

The team produced a pair of 1,000-plus yard rushers in sophomore running back Luke Canfield (1,764 yards and 29 touchdowns) and junior quarterback Zach Neligh (1,130 yards and 13 touchdowns).

Neligh had 1,861 yards passing with 22 touchdowns, while the offense churned out 5,275 total yards for 47.7 points per game. The defense held seven opponents to 14 points or less and racked up a shutout and six games at eight points or fewer allowed.

A big reason were the seniors, Ralph emphasized.

Burton and Robinson were both recognized as AP All-State honorable mention in 5A, and Glover was named Senior All-State by the Indiana Football Coaches Association.

“Those guys and our culture were strong enough to win games for us and continue to push forward and keep that standard high at where we’re accustom to being,” Ralph said. “It’s one of those things where as we go on through the years, we’ll be forever in debt to those seven kids who found a way to get the job done when no one really believed they could except for the people on the inside. It was a really memorable season for that.”

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.