NEW PALESTINE — The Monday following New Palestine’s record-setting state championship win in November, more than a dozen football players made their way to the school’s weight room.
Waiting for them was coach Kyle Ralph. The former North Carolina offensive lineman is a weight room junkie. But he wasn’t there to welcome his team that day. He was there to run them off.
“I had to throw them out,” Ralph said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to let you do anything for a week.’ They were fired up and there was a ton of excitement. They felt like they were two or three weeks behind teams that had already been knocked out of the playoffs. But I had to tell them they were banned until the next week.”
They tried to sneak in again Tuesday. Ralph tossed them out. Point taken.
“He got pretty mad at us,” senior quarterback Alex Neligh said.
New Palestine is back at it now, preparing for a new challenge. After winning the Class 4A title last year, the program is moving up to 5A this fall under the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s tournament success factor.
The Dragons, an impressive 28-1 in Ralph’s two seasons, appear capable of making another run. But there is a measure of the unknown with a regular-season schedule made up of 4A (eight of them) and 3A (two) opponents. New Palestine then jumps into Sectional 14 play with Columbus East (also moving up from 4A), Franklin, Martinsville and Whiteland.
“I think it’s good for us,” Ralph said. “It’s kind of a blessing in disguise. You kind of want to stay where you belong (teams with similar enrollment), but the nice thing is that it’s a complacency killer right away. You climb one mountain and then there’s another bigger mountain right next to you that you have to climb again. We’ll find out how we’ll handle it.”
The 6-2, 190-pound Neligh leads a group of 18 seniors that form the backbone of New Pal’s roster. Neligh jumped into the starter’s role as a junior and enjoyed a huge season, passing for 2,469 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushing for 1,185 yards and 19 TDs.
Nick Brickens, in line to move from defense into the starting role at running back, calls Neligh “the dad of the offense.” Neligh is picking up recruiting interest from Ball State, Indiana State and Northern Iowa, among others.
“If anyone is in the wrong position, Alex will make sure they get in the right place,” Brickens said. “If anything is needed, you can always ask him. He brings a lot of leadership.”
Neligh was one of the players in the group that Ralph had to toss out of the weight room.
“When your quarterback is the one setting the standard for how the program is supposed to work and how to act on and off the field, you have a good program going,” Ralph said. “That whole class is phenomenal. It’s as tight-knit of a group as I’ve been around coaching or playing.”
That camaraderie, the players say, starts in the weight room. Ralph is active on social media, posting video of the many personal records accumulated by players. Since Ralph took over the program in 2013, most of the weightlifting records at New Palestine have been smashed.
Ralph’s rigorous lifting program helps trim the fat from New Pal’s roster.
“We’ve had people come in for a couple days, a couple weeks and they see it’s something they don’t want to do,” Neligh said. “It’s hard. You have to be disciplined and you have to want to buy in. You have to dedicate a lot of time. But it becomes something you love to do.”
Coming off its first football state title, there is a palpable buzz about the program. Neligh said he can’t go anywhere around town without somebody asking him about the first game (it’s Aug. 21 at Lawrenceburg, by the way). It will be the first time the Dragons take the field since setting 11 team records and six individual records in a 77-42 Class 4A title-game win over New Prairie at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“There’s probably even more intensity than there was last year,” Neligh said. “We have a target on our back. But (another championship) is definitely the goal we have.”
Ralph said a concern moving to 5A is the overall numbers. New Palestine’s enrollment of 1,094 is more than 400 fewer than the next smallest 5A team in its sectional (Columbus East). The Dragons routinely have had players start on both offense and defense. Ralph said that’s not the norm for 5A programs.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Ralph said. “So we’ve ramped up our conditioning even more. We told them that back in December and they’ve bought in and done an outstanding job.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.