WHITELAND — The New Palestine football program underwent a complete makeover since its sectional final loss to Pendleton Heights on Nov. 4 of last year.
15 seniors gone.
And much like last season’s opener against Whiteland, the Dragons were careless with the football Friday night against the Warriors. The 2011 team possessed the continuity and experience to slug its way to a 16-14 home triumph, overcoming four turnovers in the process.
But without that veteran moxie to save their skin, the current edition of the Dragons fell to the Warriors to open their 2012 campaign by the score of 26-20, largely due to five turnovers.
And yet, despite its shortcomings under the lights, NP had a chance to steal the game away late, but quarterback Blake Luker’s pass was picked off on the goal line by Whiteland’s Nick Woehler. The Warriors ran out the clock and handed the red-and-white its first regular season loss since Whiteland thumped visiting NP 23-0 to open the 2010 season.
“We made too many mistakes tonight. We turned it over too many times,” said first-year coach Charlie Hill. “Even with all the mistakes we had, we lose by six with the ball inside the 30 at the end of the game.
“So you take all that down and we survived through all those mistakes.”
Since 2005, New Palestine is 3-5 against Whiteland, with all three of those victories coming at home by a combined nine points.
“Historically, it’s a good matchup,” said Hill, formerly the team’s defensive coordinator.
Trouble started almost immediately for the Dragons. After starting on its on 42, NP drove into Whiteland territory before Matt Owens intercepted Luker on the Warrior 10-yard-line and returned the ball to the Whiteland 42.
The Warriors would find the end zone on the ensuing drive, as running back Aaron Harris plunged in from three yards out and converted the two-point conversion to make the score 8-0 in favor of the home team.
NP would be intercepted once more and fumble three more times — losing one — by the end of the first quarter, ending the first 12 minutes of its season with three turnovers and 8-0 disadvantage. It could have been worse had it not been for the efforts of the Red Rage defense, which stood tall and kept the damage to a minimum.
A five-yard pass from Luker to Nolan Guedel on fourth-and-goal got the Dragons on the board. After the point-after attempt failed, NP trailed 8-6.
Whiteland came up with a big score just before the halftime buzzer when quarterback Adam Gutermuth connected with running back Jacob Anderson from 19 yards out with 14 seconds left in the second quarter. The two-point conversion failed, and the Dragons went into the half down 14-6.
At the beginning of the third quarter, Guedel’s interception set up a three-play, 55-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 35-yard pass from Luker to Logan Carothers right down the middle of the Warrior defense. Kyle Rodeback tacked on the extra point to bring NP within one at 14-13.
The teams traded scores to end the third period. Harris notched his second touchdown run of the night with just over six minutes left by scampering in from five yards out. The Warriors had originally gone three-and-out, but a muffed punt gave them the ball back that led to the touchdown.
However, New Palestine answered right before the end of the quarter. Behind the resurgent legs of running back Matt Siergiej — who carried 29 times for 117 yards — the Dragons grinded their way to the Whiteland inch line and Luker took it from there to level the score at 20 entering the fourth quarter.
The Dragon offense mostly sputtered in the final frame, totaling the team’s seventh fumble of the game and handful of three-and-outs.
The Warriors managed one last scoring drive with seven minutes left. Harris, who finished with 93 yards on 23 carries, tallied his third and final touchdown run by powering his way in from 10 yards out, putting his team up for good at 26-20.
Whiteland coach Darrin Fisher credited his opportunistic defense for winning the game.
“Our defensive kids made plays when we needed them,” said the eighth-year coach. “They forced some balls into our defense on those deeper routes they like to run.”
NP outgained Whiteland by 55 yards (232-177), recorded eight more first downs and was flagged for two less penalties.
But in the end, the turnovers were too much to overcome for Hill’s precocious Dragons.
“We came in knowing we had lot of inexperienced kids,” Hill said. “We were blessed last year with kids that played a lot as juniors and came back as seniors, and it was almost the other way around here.”
Notes: Luker finished 9-for-16 with 106 yards, two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and three interceptions. … Carothers led NP in receiving with three catches for 55 yards. …Tyler Walden, a starting wide receiver for NP, left early in the first quarter with a strained knee and watched the end of the game on crutches. He will be evaluated next week.
Whiteland 26, New Palestine 20
NP (0-1) 0 6 14 0 — 20
WH (1-0) 8 6 6 6 — 26
WH — Harris, 3-yard run (Harris run), 6:09
NP — Guedel, 5-yard pass from Luker (kick failed), 11:54
WH — Anderson, 19-yard pass from Gutermuth (run failed), 0:14
NP — Carothers, 35-yard pass from Luker (Rodebeck kick), 9:44
WH — Harris, 5-yard run (pass failed), 6:02
NP — Luker, 1-yard run (Rodebeck kick), 0:29
WH — Harris, 10-yard run (pass failed), 7:01
First downs 13 5
Rushes-yards 38-126 31-119
Passing yards 106 58
Comp-Att-Int 9-16-3 4-16-1
Fumbles-Lost 7-3 0-0
Penalties-Yards 3-24 5-41
Rushing: Siergiej 29-117, Hill 2-49, Luker 6-42, Wagner 1-8 (NP); Harris 23-93, Wooten 4-10, Gutermuth 2-13, Gill 1-8, Benson 1-(-5) (WH)
Passing: Luker 9-16-10 6(NP); Gutermuth 4-16-58
Receiving: Lyons 3-20, Siergiej 2-26, Guedel 1-5, Carothers 3-55 (NP); Calaway 1-2, Harris 1-24, Gill 1-13, Anderson 1-19