Dragons clinch share of HHC

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New Palestine’s Kyle Kropp (17) and Isaiah Thacker (22) celebrate a first-half touchdown earlier this season at Mt. Vernon. Thacker had a big game Friday in the Dragons win over New Castle, scoring three touchdowns in a 63-12 win.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

By Andrew Smith

For The Daily Reporter

NEW CASTLE —From the moment the ball was kicked, the New Palestine football team was in control Friday at New Castle.

NP’s Isaiah Thacker took the opening kickoff back 75 yards for a touchdown, kick-starting a 63-12 romp for Class 4A’s top-ranked team over the host Trojans.

Thacker tallied 115 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Grayson Thomas ran for 98 yards and three scores on 10 carries and quarterback Danny Tippit tallied 222 yards of total offense in the victory.

All played only one half, as the Dragons rolled up a 63-6 halftime lead and played the second unit in the running-clock second half.

It marked the seventh consecutive game in which the Dragons (8-0) have forced a running clock with a 35-point lead at or after halftime. And a marker of growth — earlier in the season, the Dragons were in a one-score game at halftime against Yorktown, but since, have had at least a three-score lead at halftime of each game.

The key for the Dragons has been maintaining focus, through four wins against ranked teams and now back-to-back wins against younger, rebuilding squads.

“That’s the continued thing with us is our growth,” NP coach Kyle Ralph said. “Sometimes, it can be hard to focus when you realize you might be a little better, but you have to respect the opponent, prepare that way and play that way. Those are things we struggled with early in the season. Tonight was a good effort across the board for us

“When you play like that in the first half, you get rewarded by not having to play in the second half and getting to rest.”

That level of focus begins in practice and with players holding each other accountable.

“The team keeps us focused,” sophomore Michael Thacker said. “When we stay together, we can do all things. I’ve got a teammate right behind me helping me keep focused, and I’m helping him. We’re all focused altogether.”

The Dragons scored in all three phases. In addition to seven offensive scores and Thacker’s kickoff return, Blaine Nunnally had a 19-yard interception return for a score — the Dragons’ third pick-6 of the season — touching off a wild sequence in which the teams combined for 20 points in 38 seconds. That was answered by a 93-yard kickoff return for a score by NC’s Tylin Thrine. On the Dragons’ next play, Tippit scampered in from 49 yards out to give the Dragons a 56-6 lead.

The Dragons scored 28 points in the opening frame, following Thacker’s kickoff return with back-to-back TDs by Thomas and a 2-yard pass to Thacker. The Dragons nearly had a fourth after Eian Roudebush’s interception set them up on the New Castle 16, but stalled on downs. The Dragons snapped the ball 11 more times in the first half and scored 35 points — with Tippit an Thomas opening the frame with TD runs to cap short drives.

The Dragons gained 320 yards on 36 plays in the opening half, scoring on seven of their eight possessions.

“They’ve played great defense the whole year.” Ralph said of New Castle. “I’m really surprised by our efficiency because they have slowed down just about everybody this year. For us to do that in this half, that was a great half of football.”

In addition to Nunnally’s pick-6, the Dragons’ top-unit defense held New Castle to three yards, sacking quarterback Quintin Boatright four times and intercepting him three. Daniel Thacker also had a pick, his fourth of the year.

“We had a really good gameplan on defense,” Ralph said. “Coach (Scott) McMurray called a good game. He puts a lot of pressures on what looks like heavy coverage. We got to the quarterback and we forced them to go to the run game, which they’ve struggled with this year.”

Much of the Dragons’ defensive success started with the young front of sophomores Michael Thacker and John Ranes and freshman Brock Brownfield. Thacker had a sack and a blocked punt, while Brownfield also had a sack. They spent much of the night in the backfield. New Castle had nine plays for negative yardage in the first half.

The Dragons have clinched at least a share of the program’s 12th Hoosier Heritage Conference title and 22nd overall conference title. They can clinch it outright with a victory over Delta on the Dragons’ Senior Night at Kelso Stadium next week.