NEW PALESTINE — Luck was not a factor.
New Palestine’s run at a share of the 2021 boys soccer Hoosier Heritage Conference championship was a result of hard work, team cohesiveness and progression.
As the Dragons rallied back and upended rival Pendleton Heights, 2-1, on Sept. 30 during their regular-season finale to secure the title, New Pal’s senior night became a celebration of more than just its elder players.
It signified what head coach Brett Canova was aiming toward when he took over the program in 2020-21.
In two short seasons, Canova’s Dragons literally went from worst to first, finishing the 2021-22 campaign with a 7-10 overall record and a 5-2 HHC finish, which tied them with Greenfield-Central, Yorktown and the PH Arabians as league champions.
In 2020-21, the Dragons were 2-13 and 1-6 in the HHC, following a trying 3-13-1 season in 2019-20 before becoming a force in Canova’s second year at the helm.
“It was a lot of fun. We just had some really classy kids. Some great kids that just came in to work. That senior class had been through a bunch of unsuccessful seasons, but when they came in, even as freshmen, they were kind of different,” said Canova, the 2021 Daily Reporter Boys Soccer Coach of the Year. “They worked for each other and for the team. They were just that group, and it was weird because it wasn’t just one or two of them. It was all of them.”
As a group, the Dragons flipped a 1-4 start into a 4-4 record and later won two of their last three regular-season games to clinch their first HHC championship since sharing it in 2015 with Mt. Vernon.
The HHC title was the program’s sixth since 2005 and the first time the championship was awarded to four schools in one year. New Palestine also won the HHC in 2005, ‘06, ‘09, ‘11 and ‘15. They were co-champions in 2011 with Greenfield-Central and part of a three-way tie in 2009 with Mt. Vernon and Shelbyville.
Considering the journey required to reach a four-way tie in 2021, the Dragons aren’t upset about sharing the prize.
“They can cut it up anyway they want,” Canova joked. “We’ll take whatever piece we get, and we’ll enjoy it. We laughed about it that night. They can give us a corner of the trophy. We don’t care. We know what we did.”
What the Dragons did was course correct behind four All-HHC selections and Canova, who shared HHC Coach of the Year honors with Yorktown’s Shane Guinn and Pendleton Heights’ Kyle Davy.
“This group got it. There’s no better way to put it. They got that if they were going to succeed, it was going to take everybody, and they carried it through,” Canova said. “It really was a collective effort, and it was a lot of fun.”
Five different players scored at least one goal for the Dragons this season, led by Brett’s son, New Palestine sophomore Elliott Canova, with 12. Four players recorded an assist or more with Elliott pacing the team with five.
Elliott Canova fittingly provided both goals against the Arabians despite the anticipation surrounding the finale.
“Looking back, being a part of it in 2020, they just never quit and they fought through all of that, so that’s kind of what we kept hitting back on. Telling them, ‘If you guys can fight through COVID. If you guys can fight through that season we had last year — two wins and maybe seven goals total — battle together and still be a team after that, then who knows what we can do,’” Canova said.
One of the keys was leadership from the top, including Canova’s son Garrett, a senior, who missed the first six games in 2020 due to COVID-19 quarantine.
Two years ago, the Dragons were routinely shorthanded due to quarantines. With a full season at near full strength in 2021, the team made substantial strides.
“Last year, we had glimpses of what we wanted, but with COVID, not only for us but for everybody, it was so inconsistent, hit and miss. If you weren’t there every day, it was tough to see, but this year we had everybody in and everybody healthy and everybody on the same page,” Brett Canova said. “That goes to the seniors and their work ethic. It just got a chance to shine.”
More relaxed this season compared to last, the Dragons tallied 19 goals and almost toppled sectional champion East Central, falling in overtime, 2-1, during the quarterfinals at Mt. Vernon on Oct. 5.
“Everybody came out and realized they had something to work for after (2020) when they didn’t get the success they had hoped to see, but they wanted to work for it again,” Canova said. “It just put them that much farther ahead. We had already laid the foundation and framework of what we were doing, and we just picked it up and went with it.”
Canova just had to establish his brand of soccer after four seasons as the Dragons junior varsity coach beforehand.
“One, it was to reestablish our work ethic. And then, two, have fun. Just work as hard as we can but enjoy the work. Enjoy playing the game. Enjoy being with each other,” Canova said.
He was also able to relish his time as a father, which will continue for two more seasons with Elliott.
“It was really cool. It was a lot of fun to be able to be there. Garrett and I got really close just talking about the game and how the program was developing and what we were trying to do. It allowed our relationship to grow quite a bit,” Canova said.
“And then to have Elliott be a part of it this year. He spent a good portion of his freshman year injured, so to have both of them on the field this year, working together, that was a blast.”
As for the future, this could merely be the beginning.
“I think we showed that we can compete at a higher level. We’re not competing at the highest level we’d like to see just yet, but the guys are starting to understand,” Canova said. “We hold each other accountable. We ask each other to take responsibility for what they do, but we’re also the first people to pick each other up and give each other a pat on the back. They’ve started to realize they don’t always have to be the picture perfect team every moment. We’re going to have moments and everywhere in between. The best thing about it is by doing it that way, we got the reward in the end. If they continue to work that way, they’re going to be in position to do that more often than not.”
2021 All-Hoosier Heritage Conference Boys Soccer Team
Zion Griffis, Sr., Delta
Aidan Pierce, Sr., Delta
John Halvorsen, Sr., Greenfield-Central
Bryce Kinnaman, Jr., Greenfield-Central
Hunter Stine, Jr., Greenfield-Central
Tyler Kerkhof, Jr., Greenfield-Central
Jordan Small, Sr., Mt. Vernon
Zack Johnson, Sr., Mt. Vernon
Tyler Webb, Sr., Mt. Vernon
Ian Thurlow, Sr., New Castle
Elliott Canova, So., New Palestine
Garrett Canova, Sr., New Palestine
Alex Richwine, So., New Palestine
Ethan Windham, Sr., New Palestine
William Phillips, Sr., Pendleton Heights
Kam Kail, Jr., Pendleton Heights
Cole Bubalo, Jr., Pendleton Heights
Grant Koperczak, Sr., Pendleton Heights
Brayden Basey, Sr., Shelbyville
Rey Bramasco, Sr., Shelbyville
Aden Lovelace, Sr., Yorktown
Jackson Furnish, Jr., Yorktown
Clay Kruger, Sr., Yorktown
Nicholas Romano, Sr., Yorktown
Coaches of the Year: Shane Guinn, Yorktown; Brett Canova, New Palestine; Kyle Davy, Pendleton Heights
2021 HHC Boys Soccer Standings
1. Yorktown Tigers;5-2;15-3;0
2. Pendleton Heights Arabians;5-2;10-6;0
3. New Palestine Dragons;5-2;7-9;0
4. Greenfield-Central Cougars;5-2;6-9;0
5. Mt. Vernon Marauders;4-3;11-7;0
6. Delta Eagles;2-5;9-6;1
7. Shelbyville Golden Bears;2-5;8-9;0
8. New Castle Trojans;0-7;4-11;2