MOMENTS TO REMEMBER: The best of 2018’s standout performances

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GREENFIELD — As my first calendar year as sports editor of the Daily Reporter comes to an end, I can’t help but reflect on some of the moments that stood out in what was an incredibly memorable year for me.

Since the day I took over on April 2, I’ve been there for two state championships, two semistate wins, two regional wins, several regional games, a bunch of sectional championships and more.

I’ve seen some of the best high school athletes I’ve ever seen, including but not limited to Charlie Spegal, Ashley Prange and each of our Players of the Year. I’ve been able to spend large chunks of time with several fantastic teams, and I have seen some amazing coaching and coaching staffs.

There are so many reasons to be excited about sports in Hancock County. We have defending softball and football champions. We have new coaches who are bringing a ton of excitement to the county, none more notable than Mike Kirschner at Mt. Vernon, who spearheaded a big turnaround this season. That looks to be only the beginning.

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As I look forward with excitement, it’s time to look back. Here are the Top 10 moments I was there personally for — I couldn’t be everywhere this season, so I missed some big stuff, unfortunately — along with some other notable things worth mentioning.

2018’s Top 10

10. Another tennis title for Mt. Vernon

As Mt. Vernon’s girls tennis team approached a fifth straight sectional championship win, the skies opened up. The last match of the day finished during a fairly heavy rainfall, leaving the celebrating to occur in wet conditions. It didn’t matter that it was pouring by the end — my first Hancock County sectional title win was special.

9. Dragons, Cougars clash in basketball

My first Hancock County basketball doubleheader lived up to expectations. The Greenfield-Central girls battled the New Palestine girls to a stalemate at the half before the Dragons pulled away for a win. The Cougars boys then went punch for punch before falling to New Palestine, which was starting its season three weeks later than most schools due to the football team winning a state title.

8. New Palestine gets big-time comeback

It was their largest deficit in over 50 games. The New Palestine softball team had to dig deep to get past a pesky Greenwood team that appeared overmatched on paper but jumped out to a six-run lead early. The Dragons got the deficit to four heading into the final inning, then the offense exploded, culminating in a walk-off home run from Tatum Biddle. That seventh inning was a sight to behold.

7. Cougars soccer completes three-peat

Greenfield-Central’s boys soccer team was fun to watch all season, and their run through the Mt. Vernon sectional was filled with intensity and excitement. Watching this group win a third straight title and advance to the regional again led to one of my favorite stories, which focused on the Cougars’ soccer family, and led me to Carmel for a regional game.

6. Meeting an Indy 500 winner

Just a few weeks after arriving in Greenfield, I received an email asking if I had interest in interviewing some of the upcoming Indianapolis 500 drivers. I had phone interviews with Simon Pagenaud and Robert Wickens, and then got to meet 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato at Greenfield’s Keihin factory. What I assumed would be a big media event turned into a personal, 20-minute-plus conversation with Takuma, and then a tour of the factory with him. This was truly an unforgettable experience.

5. Sectional semifinal showdown

The Greenfield-Central girls soccer sectional had one of the most exciting games of the year for me, with the host Cougars trying to topple the Mt. Vernon Marauders. The Cougars came back in the second half to force overtime, then went to a penalty kick shootout to decide it. The game, featuring the top three Hancock County Player of the Year candidates, didn’t disappoint.

4. Dragons dominate Center Grove

One of the most impressive displays I saw this year came from Spegal and the Dragons football team just a week after the running back’s debut. New Palestine welcomed Class 6A power — and eventual state semifinalist — Center Grove to town, the first time the Class 4A school faced a 6A team. New Palestine dominated the Trojans, setting the stage for an undefeated season and a state championship.

3. Miss Softball is crowned

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the state softball all-star game. I felt that New Palestine’s Ashley Prange deserved to win Miss Softball, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. I was anxious all day and couldn’t have been happier to hear Ashley’s name get called between games. Getting to wear the No. 1 jersey in the second game was an amazing accomplishment for an amazing athlete and person.

2. Dragons claim back-to-back softball titles

If you had told me four months ago that I’d be ranking this anywhere but No. 1, I’d have told you that you were crazy. Watching New Palestine win a state softball championship at Purdue University was an incredible experience. I spent a lot of time with the team during the postseason run, and I got to know Coach Ed Marcum and many of his players pretty well. From Rieley Widmann’s incredible seventh-inning catch, to Mackenzie Jones’ stellar pitching performance, to Michaela Jones’ home-run-that-wasn’t that drove in the winning runs, this was everything I’d hoped for and more. But it narrowly missed my top spot, which belongs to…

1. Charlie Spegal goes Beast Mode

Watching the New Palestine football team this season was amazing. They are probably the best-coached group I’ve seen at any level, and, like the Dragons softball team, I got to spend a good deal of time with Coach Kyle Ralph and his team as the season wore on. My favorite moment of the year, hands down, was watching Charlie Spegal put Decatur Central down for the count on the final play of the first half of the state championship game. It was a play designed to gain some yards to set up a field goal, and Spegal broke more than half a dozen tackles and just bulldozed his way to a massive touchdown run as the clock expired. It was a defining moment, and easily the best football play I’ve ever seen in person among Big Ten, NFL and high school games in both Iowa and Indiana. I left the press box after the third quarter to experience the championship celebration from the sidelines. It was a perfect moment, and one I hope more of our county teams get to experience.

Other memorable moments

Choosing my 10 favorite moments from the year wasn’t an easy task, so naturally I had to make an Honorable Mention list. Some are interviews; some are games. All were memorable to me.

A day at The Barn

As the New Palestine softball team approached the state championship game, I was invited by Coach Marcum to spend an afternoon at their hitting facility on his father’s property, nicknamed The Barn. I got to watch a championship team putting in the work, and had a fun few hours talking to Ed and many of the players. I’ll never forget the hospitality I was shown and how accepting everyone was.

Meeting Peyton Meadors

I’ve met so many amazing people this year, from coaches to players to athletic directors and beyond. The first time I met Mt. Vernon senior Peyton Meadors, though, stands out. I was looking to do a story on someone having success in summer AAU basketball, something I planned to be a normal-sized story that was pretty straightforward. I ended up having a 45-minute conversation with Peyton where I learned so much more about him and what drives him, and it turned into a huge feature story about a great student-athlete.

The QB, the lineman, and Mr. Everything

Weeks after New Palestine’s football team wrapped up a state championship, I sat down with quarterback Zach Neligh, offensive lineman Austin Keele and receiver/punter (and almost everything else) Eric Roudebush. We talked for almost two hours in total, and it was an absolute blast and some of the best interviews I’ve ever done. Group interviews aren’t always the easiest thing, but these three made my job simple. You’ve seen the story on Keele — the Neligh and Roudebush stories are coming very soon.

Sectional volleyball drought ends

While I wasn’t there personally to witness the Greenfield-Central Cougars win a volleyball sectional championship, getting to sit down with Coach Travis Fuller and senior Haleigh Pribble days later was a great experience. It had been decades since the Cougars had won a volleyball sectional, and the excitement and joy during that interview made it stand out to me.

A walk-off sectional winner

Finally, I wrap things up with another exciting comeback. It wasn’t for a state or sectional championship, but New Palestine’s baseball team won a thriller of a sectional semifinal that nearly cracked my Top 10. Trailing Lawrence North by a run in the bottom of the seventh, senior Jacob Garrison — who missed several weeks with a concussion — stepped up to the plate with bases loaded and one out. Needing a fly ball to tie the game, he blasted the first pitch he saw deep into the outfield, plating two runs and resulting in a celebratory dog-pile and some fun post-game interviews.