NEW PALESTINE — The New Palestine football baton has been handed off from brother to brother.
During Kyle Ralph’s seven years as the Dragons coach, New Palestine has won two state championships and finished runner-up in another. Many of the players’ last names are the same.
Tonight, the Dragons will look for a second straight title, taking on Valparaiso in the Class 5A State Finals at Lucas Oil Stadium.
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“I think that’s one of the great things about our culture and what has happened over the course of the last couple of years is the older brother relays the information down to the younger brother,” Ralph said. “They can tell them, ‘Hey, these are the expectations. This is how we do things.’
“Those younger brothers really want to live up to those legacies that those older brothers have been able to establish. It’s pretty cool to have that and see those kids come through and be so successful and do such a great job.”
When Gunnar Large, a member of the 2014 state title team and the 2016 Dragon quarterback, passed the baton, it was grabbed by two hands, twin brothers Kade and Ryker Large.
To add to the Large family affair, the father, Jeremy Large is an assistant coach and has been with the program for 23 years.
“The coolest thing is that I have got to spend two hours every day after school with them, including Gunnar, for the last 15 years. That’s time that I will always cherish,” said Jeremy Large, who also coached his boys in the New Palestine Cadet Football League.
Kade and Ryker are three-year starters and have been two-way starters each of the last two seasons. On defense, both play on the left side, Ryker as a defensive back and Kade as a linebacker/safety.
“We’ve been talking about this since our first (NPCFL) travel team in second grade, how cool it would be to play in a state championship in high school,” Ryker said. “We got to see it in our middle school days, and now we’re part of it in back-to-back years. It’s really special.”
“We used to play in the back yard together,” Kade said. “Dad would mow it like a football field. We would pretend we were Dragon football players ever since we were little. Now we get to do it together, it’s awesome.”
Coach Large said the theme for this year’s team is ‘Band of Brothers’, which he called “pretty fitting for this group.”
The brother connections seem never-ending.
Alex Neligh, now an assistant coach, was the quarterback of the 2014 state title team. Zach Neligh led the charge from that same position in 2018. Luke Ely was named the Class 5A Mental Attitude Award winner in 2018, his brother Eric Ely is a senior on this year’s team.
The state’s all-time leading rusher, Charlie Spegal, is one of three brothers with the current group.
That’s just to name a few; plus many on the coaching staff have played for the Dragons and have had sons play for the team as well.
There have been three Lukers during Ralph’s tenure. Blake, Brent and now Brody, who had an interception return for a touchdown in last week’s semi-state win over Bloomington South.
At the Hoosier Heritage Conference coaches meeting, Ralph said opponents came up to him and said, “Please tell me this is the last Luker to come through.”
Brody Luker and the Large twins were ball boys for the 2014 state championship team. Coach Large said a recent Facebook memory came up showing a photo of his sons during the team’s decisive 77-42 win over New Prairie in 2014.
“(Kade and Ryker) figured out the camera was on coach Ralph a lot, so they would hang out by coach Ralph and wave at the camera so they could see themselves on the Jumbotron. It’s funny looking back. They’ve been a part of this for so long.”
“I can’t believe it’s going to be over soon,” Kade Large said. “It flew by. Some of the most fun I have ever had in my life is playing with Ryker and my other brothers on the football team.”
It may be coming to a close for some families, but the family legacies will live on.
The senior class is big one, with 22 players, but seniors Maxen Hook and Eric Roudebush have brothers, Eli and Ian, who are only freshmen.
“It’s been fun to see those kids grow up and develop through the program and younger brother pick up where they left off,” Ralph said.
The passing of the baton never ends.
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IHSAA Class 5A Football State Finals
Time: 7 p.m. today
Place: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Admission: $15; tickets are general admission. The Dragons’ bench will be on the west side of the field.
TV: Fox Sports Indiana Plus or IHSAAtv.org
Radio: NewPalRadio.com for the Dragons broadcast or IHSAA Champions Network (WFNI-1070 AM)
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Preview coverage of tonight’s game starts on Page B1.
The Daily Reporter will have team coverage in the Weekend edition and online, and you also can follow the action by following our reporters on Twitter throughout the game:
Sports editor Rich Torres:@RichTorres23
Reporter Steve Heath: @Heat_81
Special correspondent: Brian Heinemann: @BrianHeinemann