Community Driven: New Palestine a champion beyond the lines

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NEW PALESTINE — It is called the Sea of Red.

Attendance for Friday’s Class 5A state championship football game between New Palestine and Valparaiso at Lucas Oil Stadium was announced as 19,238.

One side of the home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts had its blue seats flooded with fans of all ages dressed in red and white, the school colors for the New Palestine Dragons.

The support goes further than just folks that have a 46163 zip code. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, its count for the population of New Palestine in 2017 was a small-town grand total of 2,370.

It was estimated to be between 5,000 to 6,000 fans on the side of the field behind the New Pal bench cheering the Dragons on to their second straight state title and third crown in the last six years. Most all were donning Dragon Red.

“To see our community stand behind our program so strong is really special,” New Palestine head football coach Kyle Ralph said. “You are only going to find that in a couple of places in Indiana. For us to be one of those places is really something incredible.”

Just before 5 p.m. on Friday night, fans lined Main Street to salute the team as it received a police escort out of town and to the stadium.

“The state finals have been a testament to our support because we have more fans than any other team when we’re at the state finals,” New Palestine assistant football coach Jeremy Large said. “It’s rare that a community will fill up an entire side of Lucas Oil Stadium, but we do, every time. It’s a Sea of Red.

“Everybody jokes that the last person out of New Pal, turn off the lights.”

New Palestine Athletic Director Al Cooper said the school sold 8,000 presale tickets (3,800 in 2019 and 4,200 in 2018) over the last two state championship game appearances. The average attendance for a New Palestine home game at Kelso Stadium is 2,000. With home games for the Dragons’ regional, semistate and state tournament run, Cooper said New Palestine ticket sales contributed $100,000 to the IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association).

“With all the success under coach Ralph, it’s not just families and the school (that come out and support the team),” Brenda Turk, the president of the New Palestine Grid Iron Alliance, a fundraising organization for the football program, said. “There is a lot of support in the community and a lot of support outside of New Palestine.

“We had a team that was fun to watch and they are a great group of kids. Coach Ralph sets high standards on how the boys behave on and off the field.”

Turk said she has seen a connection with the players in the community, too. “They’re not just good football players, they’re involved in the community, with their churches and with youth groups.”

Ralph said he often talks to his teams about community and doing things the right way and not just when they are wearing football pads on Friday night. It is important to him that his guys not only do their best on the field, but represent the community well off of it.

“Wins and losses come and go,” Ralph said. “At the end of the day the community is going to stand behind our program because our kids represent our community tremendously well. On the field, they play with class, character and respect our opponent. Off the field, we’re not doing the wrong things out in the community.

“The way our kids represent our community in a lot of different aspects makes the community stand behind us that much stronger. To me, that’s really, really important. I want them to believe in our product and want them to understand our product represents our community the best it can at all times.I think they understand that and hopefully they will always come out and support that.”

The town and team have developed a great relationship.

Ralph added he once heard a speech about how the game of football brings communities together. He is enjoying seeing that first hand at New Palestine, both at home and on the road.

“That speech made an incredible point,” Ralph recalled.

“It doesn’t really matter the color of your skin or how much money you’ve got or where you are from, or anything like that. You’re there to support that football team on a Friday night. … Nobody looks at who or what you are it’s all about your team and your community. Friday night’s in New Pal have become incredibly, incredibly special. It’s amazing to always look up there, regardless of the game or weather conditions, our stadium is packed on the home side. It’s full of red and white. The fans are loud and the student section has been fantastic.”