NEW PALESTINE — Going into Friday night’s first-round sectional showdown, not many people gave Columbus East much of a chance at powerhouse New Palestine.
The East players and coaches certainly weren’t among the doubters.
The Class 4A No. 4 Olympians jumped on the 4A No. 2 Dragons from the first play of the game and dominated throughout on their way to a stunning 35-7 victory.
“We’ve been preparing for these guys ever since the summer,” senior Harry Crider said. “This is a game we wanted to win, and we came out here and dominated. I don’t know if there was anyone in the state that thought we were going to win this game, so it definitely sends a message and shows that the East Olympians are back to win a state title.”
Crider, East’s starting center, was pressed into extensive two-way action because of a shoulder injury to middle linebacker Zack O’Connor. O’Connor played a little, but Crider went most of the way in the middle of the defense.
That defense held an offense that led the state with 57.0 points per game to 50 below its average.
“We were confident coming into this game,” Crider said. “We thought we had a size and strength advantage, and they had a lot of guys going both ways, so we just wore them down.”
The Olympians (9-1), who advance to host Martinsville in Friday’s sectional semifinals, set the tone on the first play from scrimmage. New Palestine quarterback Gunnar Large threw a pass over the middle that was intercepted by East safety Ethan Summa.
Summa returned the ball 31 yards to the 28 to set up the Olympians’ first score.
“I expected a run, actually,” Summa said. “But a saw that (the receiver) came off (the line of scrimmage) really hard, and I saw it was a pass play and I just went out there and made a play. It got me really excited. It got our team excited, and we knew that we could dominate the game from right there.”
They certainly did. Five plays later, quarterback Josh Major went over from the 1, and East was off and rolling.
The Olympians did hit a little snag on their next series when Jaedin Miller fumbled out of the end zone trying to stretch the ball across the goal line. But then Zach Springhorn recovered a fumble at his own 27, and East drove for a score. On fourth and five from the 14, Major fumbled the snap, but picked it up and found tight end Bryce Duffett in the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
“We kind of had a broken play,” Major said. “I fumbled the ball, and the offensive line gave me a lot of time, and Bryce made a great play.”
The Dragons (9-1) answered by putting together their only sustained drive of the night. DuRon Ford went in from the 1, and it was 14-7 with 3:20 left in the first half.
New Palestine got the ball back and was looking at tying the game. But Crider had a strip-sack of Large, and Ben Jenkins recovered at the Dragons 40.
East faced a third-and-10 from the 17 with 13 seconds left and no timeouts left when Major dropped back, couldn’t find an open receiver and ran around the right side and into the corner of the end zone with 1.4 seconds remaining, giving the Olympians a 20-7 halftime lead.
“They had a little bit of momentum, and we knew we had to answer back with a score,” Major said. “The O-line did a great job of staying in and getting downfield blocks, and we definitely grabbed the momentum back before the half.”
East threw a major wrench in New Palestine’s comeback hopes when it took the second half kickoff and drove 80 yards in 16 plays, culminating in a 1-yard run by Jamon Hogan and a 2-point conversion run by Major.
After an exchange of punts, the Dragons went for it on fourth-and-7 from their own 20, but threw an incomplete pass. Four plays later, Hogan went in from the 4 to put the game away.
Hogan finished with 123 yards on 25 carries. Major led the Olympians with 131 yards on 23 carries and completed 3-of-7 passes for 49 yards.
“It all came down to preparation,” Major said. “We knew what they were going to do, and it was all about executing. I tried to watch as much film as I could and be a student of the game.”
Cam Wilson had an interception in the end zone to stop the Dragons’ last scoring threat. That was the fourth turnover of the game for New Palestine.
The Dragons had knocked East out of the playoffs the past two years. But this was the Olympians’ night.
“Right now, we’re playing our best football,” East coach Bob Gaddis said. “We hadn’t felt like we’d played our best four quarters yet. Across the board, we played great offensively, we played great defensively, we played great on special teams. That’s what it takes to beat a program like this.”