Kyle Ralph was sitting in a locker room, alone, head down.
This was the moment he’d dreaded. Not a loss. Those things happen. But the end of the line for 17 seniors who had helped Ralph turn the New Palestine football program into an unlikely state powerhouse.
It ended on Friday night. Fifth-ranked Fort Wayne Snider defeated – or outlasted – Ralph’s top-ranked Dragons 64-61 in a Class 5A state championship game for the ages at Lucas Oil Stadium.
New Palestine saw a 28-game winning streak snapped, but may have gained more respect in defeat than any of its wins. The Dragons rallied from a 28-point deficit to take the lead, lose it, take it again, and lose it for good.
“One of our program staples is life has winners and life has losers,” said Ralph, the third-year coach who now 41-2 in his three seasons at New Pal. “Either of those are acceptable. The third option is to quit. Quitting is not an option in our program. We put our guys through a lot of stuff in the offseason to drill that in their heads. I’d like to think when those guys walk out of here, that they’ve learned that. Because there was no quit in them tonight.”
This was a new script for New Palestine, a program that had averaged 61 points a game coming into Friday’s championship. Giving up big plays. Down 28 points. Then it flipped. Did it ever.
And then it flipped again. And again. And again.
Snider quarterback Isaac Stiebeling scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 8 seconds left to give the Panthers their second state championship in program history and first since 1992. The teams combined for a championship-record 1,302 yards of total offense (New Palestine had 757 to Snider’s 545).
The combined 125 points eclipsed the previous record of 119 in a state championship game, set last season when New Palestine defeated New Prairie 77-42 for the Class 4A title. But this one far outweighed last year’s in drama and big plays.
New Palestine (13-1) scored 35 unanswered points to take the lead, 49-42, with 8:34 left after a touchdown run by Dragons quarterback Alex Neligh, who passed for a finals-record 501 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 166 yards and four more scores.
But that was just the beginning of a fourth-quarter scoring barrage that saw the teams combine for 41 points in the final eight-plus minutes.
Malik Bramley gave Snider (13-1) a 56-49 lead after his 65-yard kickoff return and 57-yard touchdown reception from Stiebeling on a third-down play with 4:22 left. Stiebeling passed for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
But it was far from over. New Pal drove back down the field and Neligh ran in a 4-yard touchdown with 2:33 left. Spencer Corey – who had made all 113 extra-point attempts to that point – had his kick blocked by Domonique Slaughter to keep the score 56-55 Snider.
The New Pal defense held Snider as Adam Kincaid and James Crumlin combined for a big third-down tackle. The Dragons and their explosive offense, averaging more than 60 points a game, got the ball back at their 11 with 1:23 left.
It didn’t take that long. Neligh found Duke Blackwell over the middle for a 56-yard touchdown to give the Dragons a 61-56 lead with 1:03 left. Neligh’s 2-point conversion run fell a yard short of the end zone.
Snider, starting from its own 32, quickly moved the ball down the field and Stiebeling tumbled into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 8 seconds left.
Neligh’s final desperation heave was picked off by Jonari Brown near midfield.
New Palestine’s Blackwell finished with 10 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns. His yardage was also an individual state finals record for a receiver.
It appeared early on that New Palestine might get blown out.
Thank you to everyone who believed in us, I'm sorry we couldn't get the job done. Congrats to Snider. pic.twitter.com/q1Ovi056h6— Alex Neligh (@nelighalex) November 28, 2015
The top-ranked Dragons trailed 42-14 with 48 seconds left in the first half after Stiebeling hit David Turner for a 47-yard touchdown pass, Stiebeling’s third of the game.
Just when it looked like the game was about to get out of hand, the Dragons responded. Senior quarterback Neligh engineered an 86-yard drive before halftime, finding Logan Greene for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 3 seconds left in the half to make it 42-21.
New Pal got the ball back to start the second half and went to work again, drawing to 42-28 on Neligh’s 47-yard run. He hit Blackwell for a 73-yard touchdown and on the ensuing kickoff, Greene recovered a fumble and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown to make it 42-42 with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from our kids, to be honest,” Ralph said. “They work too hard to just give up. Everything we do in this program, whether you win or lose, there’s no surrender, there’s no quit. We weren’t going to just come out here and roll over.”
Ralph said he’d “never been prouder of a group of kids in a win or a loss.”
“It’s something you don’t find that much in kids anymore these days,” he said.
When asked about Neligh’s performance, Ralph cleared his throat and paused. Neligh, who was named the Phil Eskew Mental Attitude Award winner, rewrote the New Pal record books in his career.
Snider blitzed Neligh relentlessly, hitting him hard time after time. Yet Neligh kept delivering, until he ran out of time.
“Games like this, at any level of football, people look to those gutsy performances,” Ralph said. “That guy is the show for us. Quarterbacks leave their marks and their signatures based on how they lead their teams during those tough times. On the biggest stage tonight, that guy played the biggest game of his life. If I’m making a team, that’s my quarterback. The odds were against us tonight and that guy took us out of the fire and put us in a position to win. That may be the single greatest effort I’ve seen a kid make in a game. He’s like a son to me. To see him and us fall short is tough, but it’s also life. He’s going to be a successful young man, father and husband because of the attitude he displayed on that field tonight.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.
Friday’s state finals records:
Most combined points: 125 (5A and overall)
Most touchdowns: 9 (Snider, 5A only)
Most PAT kicks: 8 (Snider, 5A only)
Most passing yards: 501 (New Palestine, 5A and overall)
Total offensive yards: 757 (New Palestine, 5A and overall)
Total combined offensive yards: 1,302 (5A and overall)
Most first downs: 30 (New Palestine, 5A and overall)
Most kickoff return yards: 168 (Snider, 5A only)
Most touchdowns: 4 (Neligh, tied 5A record)
Most PAT kicks: 8 (Paul Buisman, tied 5A record)
Most rushing TDs: 4 (Neligh, tied 5A record)
Most passing yards: 501 (Neligh, overall and 5A)
Most receiving yards: 328 (Duke Blackwell, overall and 5A)
Most receiving touchdowns: 3 (Blackwell, tied overall and 5A)
FW SNIDER 64, NEW PALESTINE 61
Snider 21 21 0 22 — 64
New Pal 0 21 21 19 — 61
FWS – Money Woods 17 run (Paul Buisman kick)
FWS – Isaac Stiebeling 1 run (Buisman kick)
FWS – Stiebeling 37 pass from Malik Bramley (Buisman kick)
NP – Alex Neligh 27 rush (Spencer Corey kick)
FWS – Stiebeling 1 run (Buisman kick)
NP – Duke Blackwell 62 pass from Neligh (Corey kick)
FWS – Mac Hippenhammer 53 pass from Stiebeling (Buisman kick)
FWS – David Turner 47 pass from Stiebeling (Buisman kick)
NP – Logan Greene 6 pass from Neligh (Corey kick)
NP – Neligh 47 run (Corey kick)
NP – Blackwell 73 pass from Neligh (Corey kick)
NP – Greene 20 fumble return (Corey kick)
NP – Neligh 12 run (Corey kick)
FWS – Bramley 65 kickoff return (Buisman kick)
FWS – Bramley 57 pass from Stiebeling (Buisman kick)
NP – Neligh 4 run (kick blocked)
NP – Blackwell 56 pass from Neligh (run failed)
FWS – Stiebeling 3 run (Dellinger run)
Rushing – FW Snider: Money Woods 6-92, Dominick Scott 7-37, Isaac Stiebeling 10-33. New Palestine: Alex Neligh 28-166, Nick Brickens 13-72, Adam Kincaid 8-20, Duke Blackwell 1-(minus-2).
Passing — FW Snider: Stiebeling 18-28-1 346, Malik Bramley 1-1-0 37. New Palestine: 20-33-1 501.
Receiving — FW Snider: David Turner 6-125, Mac Hippenhammer 6-109, Bramley 5-98, Stiebeling 1-37, Woods 1-14. New Palestine: Blackwell 10-328, Logan Greene 5-54, Brett Luker 2-82, Joe Izbicki 2-19, Brady Walden 1-18.