NEW PALESTINE — There was a lot on the line Friday night for New Palestine.
With a win, the Dragons would secure a sixth consecutive undefeated regular season, a 54th regular-season win in a row, their 41st straight Hoosier Heritage Conference victory, and, most importantly, sole possession of the HHC championship.
The Dragons came out on fire and left no doubt, going up 35-0 in less than nine minutes. They set the tone instantly, with a four-play opening drive that featured a 23-yard pass from Zach Neligh to Colby Jenkins followed by runs of 33, 11 and 21 yards from Charlie Spegal.
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A three-play, 36-yard touchdown drive two minutes later ended with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Neligh to Maxen Hook. A two-play, 46-yard touchdown drive ended with a 16-yard touchdown run from Neligh. A three-play, 38-yard touchdown drive followed, capped by Spegal running over and through defenders for a 30-yard score. Spegal capped the next drive, all of two plays, with a 28-yard touchdown run.
New Palestine was up 42-0 after the first quarter and cruised to its seventh straight conference title with an 84-13 win against Delta.
“We had a good game plan we thought this week,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “It was a little bit concerning, honestly, knowing what the weather was going to be. Our game plan was a lot of pitches and options, which are risky plays in weather like this. We just did the small things to take care of the ball better.”
The Dragons are used to pounding the ball up the middle on a regular basis, opening huge holes in the interior against defenses. They went with the option and focused on outside runs to attack the Delta defense, though.
“We felt like defensively they were going to play a seven-man box all night against us. That’s what they tried last year,” Ralph said. “We felt like they were going to sacrifice the edges. The outside zone is too risky when you play the loaded box like that, so we went with the speed option. It was great. It went really well for us. The kids executed tremendously well.
“We ripped off some massive, massive runs, which is good. It showed off our versatility as well, with some inside and outside runs.”
Delta, in search of a share of the HHC title, found itself on its heels from the opening kickoff. The Dragons started four of their first five drives in Delta territory, leading to quick, efficient touchdowns.
The Dragons had two one-play drives in the second half, with an 82-yard touchdown run from Spegal followed by a 63-yard touchdown run by linebacker Luke Ely.
Spegal, playing against his former team for the first time, got the best of the Eagles right from the start. He finished the game with 15 runs for 379 yards and 7 touchdowns in less than three quarters, scoring on runs of 21, 30, 28, 27, 61, 37 and 82 yards.
The big night put Spegal over 2,000 yards for the year and left him at 48 touchdowns, extending his national scoring and touchdown leads. He jumped a half-dozen positions and into the top 20 in state history in career rushing yards in Friday’s win.
“The guys up front, and I’ll tell you what, our receivers tonight, blocked exceptionally well,” Ralph said. “(Spegal) is a great player, obviously. I think he was very motivated tonight. He has a lot of good friends on that team, and he has a lot of respect for Delta. That was his home. But he was a man on a mission tonight. When he got the ball, he definitely made the most of it, that’s for sure.”
Neligh had a big game of his own, rushing 9 times for 94 yards and a touchdown and completing 6 of 10 passes for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 73-yard strike to Brody Luker.
As a team, New Palestine rushed for 564 rush yards and amassed 692 total yards.
The Dragons defense dominated a strong Delta offense, holding the Eagles to 256 total yards, 121 rushing and 135 passing, well below their season averages. Delta had averaged over 400 yards of offense and over 250 rushing yards per game before running into the Dragons.
Aven Jones and Kyle King had sacks for the Dragons, with King’s being his team- and county-leading 10th of the year.
“All in all our guys up front played well, played physical,” Ralph said. “Hats off to our defensive players for playing a sound game against such a multiple offense. Every given play they have two receivers with a height advantage on us, three running backs with misdirection and motion. Credit to our kids, they did an exceptional job all week in preparing and it paid off for them.”
The win gives the Dragons a sixth straight undefeated regular season, and they head into sectional play at 9-0 and as Hoosier Heritage Champions again. New Palestine plays next in the sectional semifinals on Oct. 26 at either Muncie Central or Zionsville.
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Next week is the start of sectional play, with two Hancock County schools in opening-round action and two having byes.
Mt. Vernon will play at home against Shelbyville on Friday at 7 p.m., while Eastern Hancock will play at Heritage Christian at 7 p.m.
New Palestine and Greenfield-Central have byes. They will each play semifinal games Oct. 26, with the Dragons traveling to either Muncie Central or Zionsville and the Cougars headed to Anderson.