COLUMBUS — Class 5A No. 1 New Palestine and No. 2 Columbus East are no strangers to meeting on the big stage.
Friday night marked the third consecutive year the two teams met for a sectional title. The Olympians drew first blood and looked like they might deal the Dragons their first loss in 26 games, but New Palestine showed why it is ranked the top team in its class, winning 24-14 and claiming its second consecutive sectional title.
After a slow start for both teams, the Olympians (11-1) broke through on the scoreboard with a nine-play, 45-yard drive late in the first quarter that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown run by Sam Dwenger. New Palestine coach Kyle Ralph said his team wasn’t concerned despite the early deficit.
“It’s about playing calm and doing your job,” he said. “We knew (Columbus) East would come out with a ton of emotion and excitement. They play incredibly well. We had to ride that wave out and continue to execute.”
In the final two Olympian possessions in the first half, Columbus East turned the ball over on downs and punted the ball.
“Had we converted a couple of those fourth downs when we had field position, it could’ve been different,” Columbus East coach Bob Gaddis said. “It would’ve been nice to get another score up on them. We knew they’re an awfully good football team and their offense is so good, it’s hard to keep them down very long.”
The Dragons got on the board in the second quarter on a 16-yard strike from Alex Neligh to Duke Blackwell to tie the score going into halftime.
After halftime, it was all Dragons.
It took only two plays into the third quarter for Neligh to find Blackwell in the end zone again, this time on a 65-yard strike.
Neligh finished with 128 passing yards and added 54 yards on the ground, including a rushing touchdown to give the Dragons a two-score edge in the second half.
“It’s hard to stop everything he does,” Ralph said. “Columbus East had a great game plan tonight to try to slow him down and keep him in check, but he’s a tremendous competitor. The others guys we’ve got stepped up tonight and pulled their weight so they can’t focus on one players.”
One of those players was Dragons running back Nick Brickens. Despite not scoring a touchdown, he rushed for 120 yards and extended numerous drives in the second half to eat the clock.
While the New Palestine offense began clicking, its defense held strong. Columbus East punted on its first three possessions of the second half.
Olympians running back Steve O’Neal got Columbus East within striking distance with a 45-yard touchdown on a screen pass, but by then it was too little, too late.
“Our guys played flat out physical,” Ralph said. “Our guys are in great shape. Our conditioning got pushed to the edge tonight, a lot of our guys played both ways. Our guys were still really fresh as that game wore on.”
The Dragons will host Zionsville (4-6) next week in the regional.
NEW PALESTINE 24, COLUMBUS EAST 14
CE — Sam Dwenger 3 run (Sam Thomasson kick)
NPHS — Duke Blackwell 16 pass from Alex Neligh (Spencer Corey kick)
NPHS — Blackwell 65 pass from Neligh (Corey kick)
NPHS — Neligh 4 run (Spencer kick)
NPHS — FG Spencer 25
CE — Steve O’Neal 45 pass from Josh Major (Thomasson kick)
Rushing: Columbus East — Steve O’Neal 28-154 Major 12-31 New Palestine — Nick Brickens 21-120, Neligh 23-54, Rhett Myers 5-35, Adam Kincaid 2-7
Passing: Columbus East — Josh Major 14-25-155. New Palestine — Alex Neligh 8-15-128
Receiving: Columbus East — Caleb Voelker 3-57, O’Neal 1-45, Cameron Wilson 4-20, New Palestine — Blackwell 3-86, Logan Greene 3-30, Brett Luker 2-12