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New Pal girls on track for 7-peat

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FORTVILLE — Some sports coaches spend their entire careers in search of a championship. Whether it be the professional, college or prep ranks, even the best managers find titles hard to come by.

And while it's not a state championship — the highest achievement possible for Bobby Holden — the action he'll guide his soccer players through Saturday represent a possibly historic achievement. 

Holden could win not one — but two — sectional titles in matter of just a few hours.
His girls' soccer team defeated host Mt. Vernon 2-1 in overtime Thursday in the semifinals to advance to the championship against Greenfield-Central at 5 p.m.
Holden's New Palestine lads upended Shelbyville 1-0 Wednesday in the semifinals at Shelbyville and the Dragons will return Saturday at 7:30 p.m. to face Mt. Vernon for the crown.
Holden, in his first year as the New Palestine girls' coach and second season with the boys, will travel roughly 45 miles from Fortville to Shelbyville after his girls' match ends. Barring overtime, the Dragons-Cougars tilt should end by 6:45 p.m.
"If everyone could stay off the road that time of day, that would help me a lot," Holden said with a laugh of his impending journey. "I can't afford a ticket, so I won't be speeding."
Holden added that he's been attempting to acquire assistance from the Hancock County Sheriff's Department, but officers might be too tied up with Riley Days in Greenfield to offer a police escort.
"It's not that they can't do it, it's just that they don't have a lot of officers available that day," Holden said.

Holden won't be the first NP girls' head coach to make a sectional-to-sectional same-day trip. His predecessor, Dana Merrick, and past Dragons' teams often traveled to root on the New Palestine boys at various locations after the girls won their own sectional title. And they had lots of practice. The New Palestine girls will be aiming for a seventh-straight sectional title Saturday, and they've won nine championships since 2000.

Lauren Joray helped keep the Dragons' seven-peat bid alive Thursday. Tied 1-1 after regulation, Joray got a shot past Mt. Vernon goalkeeper Olivia Coleman three minutes into overtime and the Dragons (12-6) advanced to face Greenfield-Central (10-6), a 6-0 winner over Shelbyville in Thursday's early semifinal.
Mt. Vernon opened aggressively, with Claudia Brown breaking free to beat New Palestine keeper Kenzie Morgan with a blast into the net to give the Marauders a 1-0 lead just two minutes into the match. That would be the only score Morgan and the Dragons' defense allowed, however. NP Alyssa Mouzin tied the semifinal at 1-1 with 10 minutes remaining in the first half. 
Holden credited Mt. Vernon with taking control of the midfield for much of the match, a strategy that nearly paid off for the Marauders (11-5-1).
"When you have a player like Lauren Joray, who was All State last year and probably will be again this year, you have to take her seriously," MV coach Casey Dodd said. "So the goal was to kind of clog (the midfield) up a little bit, and we knew we had some speed and we were going to try to take advantage of it.
"The first goal was just a straight hustle play and that speed was apparent. Claudia got in, finished a great shot. And then there's two other breakaways that their keeper comes up huge. We put those away, obviously it's a much different game."
Joray, last year's Hancock County Player of the Year, came through in the clutch Thursday, as she so often has. The senior midfielder scored a goal in the Dragons' 2-1 sectional title win over Greenfield-Central last season, then notched an assist and two more goals, including the go-ahead score, in a 4-2 regional semifinal victory over Center Grove. Joray scored again in a 3-2 regional championship loss to Perry Meridian, the final game for Merrick, the Dragons' former longtime coach.
Merrick resigned shortly after the season and New Palestine administrators took the unusual step of handing the reigns to the boys' head coach — Holden, a self-professed soccer junkie and lay coach, who also guides travel and club teams in the high school offseason. 
"I was pretty excited," New Palestine senior defender Julie Hilton said of her initial reaction to Holden being named head coach. "My sister (Holly) trained with him and she always said great things about him, so I was excited going into this season."
With detailed planning and help from his assistant coaches, Holden has managed to guide practices and matches of both the girls' and boys' teams, despite the obvious challenge of the squads competing in the same fall season.
"He definitely takes an even amount of time for both of us," Hilton said. "He doesn't favor one team."
Merrick's final two squads each finished 17-1-3, with a handful of key senior graduating from last season's team. Four sophomores and a freshman were in the starting lineup for Holden's Dragons against Shelbyville, and many of the upperclassmen had limited varsity experience prior to this campaign.
It's led to a much different postseason environment for the Dragons, who, with that six-year championship steak, have clearly been untouchable in the sectional tourney in past seasons.
A few minutes after surviving a sectional overtime thriller, though, Hilton said she didn't mind the excitement.
"It's pretty fun being a part of this kind of team, not knowing, and you really have to play your heart out no matter what," Hilton said. "There's no room for mistakes."
The Marauders, without a sectional title since 1996, hope to be on the mistake-free side of the soccer ledger next season, when they'll return nearly their entire squad. Jordan Slusher was the only senior starter for MV Thursday. 
"I couldn't be happier with this group of young players," Dodd said. "At the beginning of the year we knew we were going to struggle at time, and honestly I thought we were going to struggle more than we did. I was going to be happy if we finished .500 this year.
"But, those young players, they started off great and got better. There were some shaky times ... but the continued developing. You take a young team like that and we finished the regular season on a six-game win streak, that's saying something. So, I'm really happy where we're headed these next couple years."
The Dragons are also youthful, but they'll be without their best player, Joray, this time next year. And Greenfield-Central will return most of its lineup. 
For now, New Palestine is focused on a seventh-straight trophy. Only Fort Wayne Snider, with eight consecutive sectional titles enter this postseason, has a longer active girls' soccer streak.
Holden could begin a unique, personal sectional run today.
"Three months ago, we talked and you think about this day, the possibility of two sectional championships," he said. "And now you have that opportunity. The girls gave me it and the boys gave it to me, and they both gave it to me in exciting fashion. It's a little nerve-wracking, but it's fun." 

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