State Football Notebook: Red Rage sparks Dragons with momentum-turning plays


INDIANAPOLIS — New Palestine’s defense had a good first half. It just didn’t have the big plays that have been customary of the Red Rage defense.

That changed in the second half.

The Dragons won their second straight Class 5A state championship at Lucas Oil Stadium Friday, 27-20, over Valparaiso. Two big second-half turnovers from the Dragon D helped make it happen.

After New Palestine took a 17-10 lead on Charlie Spegal’s 80-yard run early in the third quarter, the Red Rage put its mark on the Dragons’ second straight title.

The series following the Spegal TD, junior linebacker Hunter Burks forced Valparaiso running back Tommy Burbee to fumble. Maxen Hook, who had a touchdown-saving tackle on the play prior, made the recovery. The Dragons took over and Alex Kropp kicked a 20-yard field goal to give the Dragons a 20-10 lead with 4:05 left in the third quarter.

“We decided to do some outside blitzes and that ended up working out and we scored a field goal off of it,” Burks said. “After halftime, they started passing more, so we started to widen out our linebackers. That helped getting us out there quicker and getting us in to space.”

It’s the first state title for Burks. He played as a freshman, but chose to concentrate on basketball as a sophomore, so he left the football program.

“I decided to quit and focus on basketball,” Burks said. “I was watching the state game last year and it really made me miss it. I decided to come back and give it another shot and it ended up working out.”

On the next Vikings offensive series, senior defensive back Ryker Large picked off a C.J. Opperman pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown. It gave New Palestine a 27-10 lead.

“All five of our DBs have been playing together for three years, so we know how to manipulate the defense to make it look like we’re playing a certain coverage,” Large said.

The senior defensive back said the secondary was in a Cover 2 defense, but tried to make it look like a Cover 3.

“My twin brother (Kade Large) got in the (throwing lane),” Ryker Large said. “(Opperman) threw the ball behind (the receiver). Luckily I was there, caught it and no one was in front of me.”

Hook led the Dragon defense with a game-high 12 tackles. Richard Clevenger had nine and a tackle for loss. Aven Jones had eight stops and Brody Luker had seven, including six solos. Senior lineman Kyle King, who has verbally committed to Michigan State, had two tackles for loss, including a sack.

“We just had to keep doing what we were doing,” Hook, who has verbally committed to play at Toledo, said of the Dragons’ defense. “We held them to 10 points (in the first half) and we’ve been a second-half team all year. We knew our offense would get it going and it did.”

It was the third straight week the Dragons had an interception return for a touchdown. Two weeks ago in a 35-10 region championship win over Cathedral, Hook put a nail in the Irish coffin with a 32-yard fourth-quarter return.

Last week, Luker had a 42-yard return for a touchdown in a 45-0 semi-state victory over Bloomington South.

Kropp highlights big day for NP’s special teams

Coming into Friday’s state championship game, New Palestine led the state with an average winning margin of 42.3 points.

Opportunities for pressure-packed field goals were few and far between.

The Dragons had just one field goal all season. Kropp, a senior, kicked a 35-yarder early in the second quarter of last week’s semistate game against Bloomington South. It gave the Dragons a 24-0 lead in an eventual 45-0 victory.

He went 2-for-2 in Friday’s title game. A 23-yarder with 8:11 left in the first half gave the Dragons a 10-7 lead. He put three more points on the board with a 20-yarder at the 4:05 mark of the third, to give New Pal a 20-10 lead.

“I think going back to last year, I missed a field goal (in the state championship game),” Kropp said. “It was big having that experience. Twenty-thousand people is a lot of people to play in front of. You have to stay focused in.”

Kropp tore his quad in a kicking camp late in the summer. He didn’t return to his normal kicking duties until Week 8 of the regular season.

“When I first got hurt, they told me I may not be able to kick the rest of the year,” Kropp said. “I said to myself, ‘What can I do about that?’ All I could do was work harder. I had a lot of physical therapy and I worked hard in the weight room to get back. I was able to come back and it feels good.”

It was a good day all-around for the Dragons special teams.

Kropp had three touchbacks on kickoffs and went 3-of-3 on PATs. Punter Eric Roudebush had five punts for a 40.6 average, five yards more than his average for the season.

Kick-returner Luke Canfield had two 33-yard kickoff returns. Both gave the Dragons good field positions on their first two scoring drives.

O-line determined on final series

Up 27-20 with 3:03 left in the game, the Dragons knew they needed a pair of first downs to clinch the team’s second-straight state title.

Valparaiso had all three of its timeouts remaining, but the New Palestine offensive line and state-record holding running back Spegal did what they had to do to move the chains, twice.

“We knew if we got those first downs we were going to win. They started blitzing from every different direction and we picked up the best we could, but that is a really good defense,” offensive line coach Dan Buchanan said. “We told them, ‘Listen, block your (tails) off. Dig in deep and block until the whistle. Pick up the blitzers and block for a state championship.”

Spegal had carries for 5, 4 and 5 yards to get the initial first down. He broke open a 27-yarder for the second.

The Dragons were able to run out the rest of the clock.

“I think when we went up by so much we let back a little bit,” junior center Noah Mack said. “That last drive really hit us. If we get two first downs this is it, we win the game. That motivated us. We pushed through and got the job done.

“(Charlie) is a great running back. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in college.”