NEW PALESTINE — After a one-week wait, the defending state champions are ready to start their run at a repeat.
They’ll have to do it on the road.
The New Palestine Dragons travel to Whiteland tonight for a Class 5A football sectional semifinal, the start of what they hope is a long tournament run that again ends at Lucas Oil Stadium. It won’t be easy.
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This year’s path, just like a year ago, is filled with potential challenges. The Dragons have an idea of what to expect, though, having run through the 5A gauntlet unblemished a year ago.
“It’s great, obviously, when you make playoff runs like that. You start to learn what real adversity in a football game actually is,” New Palestine coach Kyle Ralph said. “Last year, we were fortunate to kind of have some ups and downs throughout the tournament.”
That started right out of the gate, with a game against a tough Zionsville team, their closest game of the year to that point by a good margin.
After rolling past Anderson in the sectional championship, the start of the regional game against Harrison was another down point, as the defense couldn’t get off the field, the offense didn’t get many possessions and Harrison hung close for a half. Then, the Dragons fell behind for the first time all year against Michigan City in the semistate, then found themselves in a slugfest in the first half against Decatur Central in the title game.
Some of the victory margins were misleading. Winning a 2018 state championship wasn’t easy, and the Dragons learned some valuable lessons from the tournament run.
“For our kids, it was good because they had to learn what it was like in an atmosphere where if you don’t win, you go home,” Ralph said. “When your back is against the wall in some of those games last year, you find out what you’re made of as a player and what you’re made of as a team. A lot of these kids played on that team, so hopefully they can recall that. That’s kind of been our message this week.”
The Dragons have grown accustomed to the pressure. Throughout the regular season, everybody gives them their best shot. They all want to be the team that ends the big winning streak and stops the seven-year stretch of perfect regular seasons.
Teams throw unexpected strategies at New Palestine, trying to catch them off guard. They’ll change things up from how they’ve played the entire season, hoping to slow down the Dragons.
Nobody has been able to do it in more than two full seasons, but the Dragons know they can’t get complacent if they want another state title.
“We’ve just got to work that much harder. Everybody wants to beat us,” New Palestine senior Maxen Hook said. “That’s a compliment to us, but if everybody is working that much harder, that means we’re going to have to take our game to another level.”
Tonight’s sectional semifinal against the 6-3 Warriors will give New Palestine another different look. They’ve seen all sorts of run-heavy teams, and plenty of good running backs and quarterbacks, but Whiteland presents a different type of challenge.
The Warriors run the ball almost exclusively, passing fewer than four times per game. Six different runners have scored touchdowns this year, and four have more than 400 yards. Five players have gotten at least 42 carries, with one averaging 7.9 yards per carry and two nearing a full 10 yards per run.
“It’s a huge problem, and it’s something that you just don’t see. They definitely hit you by committee,” Ralph said. “It’s not one guy you have to deal with — it’s four to five different ball-carriers, and they rotate guys in and out a lot so you’re getting fresh bodies that are running that fly/sweep stuff and running it really well and really fast.
That’s not the only challenge the Whiteland offense presents.
“They have an absolutely massive offensive line. They’ve got a kid who is like 6-6, 320, and one that’s 6-5, 308,” Ralph added. “They’re really big kids, and we can’t replicate that.”
That’s not a new scenario for the Dragons, as they went against bigger players throughout most of last year’s tournament. They faced the same situation this season against Center Grove, but found a way to slow the Trojans and get a big win on the road.
They know the drill. They’ve just got to go out and play disciplined football despite the big size discrepancy.
“We’ve just got to focus on our technique and our skills that the coaches have taught us,” offensive and defensive lineman Matt Brown said. “Do what we’re supposed to, not make mental mistakes, and do our jobs.
“We just watch a lot of film and get used to what they’re going to do.”
Even though they’ve made it look easy in the regular season, winning all but the Center Grove game by at least five touchdowns, the Dragons haven’t been on cruise control.
Everything they’ve done has been to prepare them as best they can for what they know will be a tough road ahead. They’ve taken everybody’s best shots so far. That isn’t going to change tonight.
“Now that you’re here in it, they are used to that kind of environment,” Ralph said. “It’s not like we’ve been asleep for nine weeks and have to flip the switch. We’ve been preparing for this.”
“You’ve just got to not think about how many games we’ve won in a row, the fact that we won state last year,” Hook said. “Every week, our record is 0-0, and our goal is to be 1-0 at the end of each week. Each week is a new week — we don’t think about what we did last week. We focus on our opponent and do what we’ve got to do to beat them.”
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(all games at 7 p.m.)
New Palestine (9-0) at Whiteland (6-3)
Pendleton Heights (6-4) at Greenfield-Central (2-8)
Mt. Vernon (8-2) at New Castle (4-6)
Heritage Christian (9-1) at Eastern Hancock (8-2)