After losing several key players who fueled a Class 4A state championship and a Class 5A state runner-up finish, many outside the New Palestine football program thought the Dragons would experience a dropoff.
Inside the program, it was a different story.
New Palestine produced its fourth consecutive 9-0 regular season this fall and is ranked No. 2 in Class 5A. The level of surprise depends on the perspective.
“I would say for the people inside the program, ‘no;’ for the people outside the program, a very big ‘yes,'” New Palestine coach Kyle Ralph said. “We lost a lot of great kids. It was a great senior class. I think a lot of people on the outside thought there was no way we could keep the ball rolling, that it was just talent, and our kids wanted to prove these people wrong.”
The Dragons certainly have. They lead the state in scoring with 57.0 points a game and in scoring margin at 41.8.
Columbus East coach Bob Gaddis, whose Columbus East team visits New Palestine for a first-round sectional matchup Friday night, isn’t surprised either.
“That’s what happens when you have a good program,” Gaddis said. “It’s the other kids’ turn to play, and they’ve proven that.”
Senior quarterback Gunnar Large has thrown for 1,421 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Dragons. Senior DuRon Ford ranks second in the state with 1,774 rushing yards and first with 32 touchdowns.
Large is 40 pounds lighter than his predecessor, Mr. Football runner-up Alex Neligh, but is faster and maybe a little shiftier. Ralph said Large has done a great job of keeping the offense moving forward and distributing the ball to the weapons around him.
“He’s not as big, but he’s a fast kid,” Gaddis said. “He’s a very accurate thrower, and I think he’s faster than people give him credit for. Their tailback is a good player, they’re good up front on both sides of the football and I think their overall team quickness is pretty good, also.”
East junior Josh Major has completed 84.4 percent of his passes. He has thrown for 949 yards and six touchdowns, despite missing 2 ½ games with a concussion.
Junior Jamon Hogan has rushed for 1,285 yards and 23 scores.
“They’re just so well coached,” said Ralph, who is 50-2 in his four years at New Palestine. “Coach Gaddis does a great job with them. What they’ve been able to do down there speaks for itself. You have new names and young kids all over the place, and the machine just keeps pushing on forward.”
The Olympians are led up front by senior center Harry Crider and senior tackle Jared Clark.
“The next thing that jumps out is just their size,” Ralph said. “I don’t know where those kids keep coming from. They have a whole barrel of people that are 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 and 265-and-up. When you have kids that are that powerful, it can present some issues. When you combine that with their talent and discipline, it can make it really hard to prepare for.”
Although East and New Palestine have never met in the regular season, this will be the fourth consecutive year they’ve battled in the playoffs.
The Olympians won 49-14 in the 2013 semistate, and the Dragons prevailed 30-28 on a last-second field goal in the 2014 semistate. Both times, the winner captured the 4A state title the following week.
Last year, when both teams moved up to 5A because of the tournament success factor, New Palestine won 24-14 in the sectional final. The Dragons made it back to the state title game, where it fell to Fort Wayne Snider 64-61.
“We have a lot of respect for what they’ve done,” Gaddis said. “They’ve been on a great run over there. You just really enjoy preparing for an opponent like that. It’s a fun week of preparation for our staff and our kids.”
What: Columbus East at New Palestine football
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: New Palestine High School
Advancement: The winner will host Martinsville in the sectional semifinals on Oct. 28