Building a juggernaut
A two-time all-Atlantic Coast Conference offensive lineman when he played at North Carolina, Kyle Ralph probably could have had a career in the NFL.
Instead of chasing that dream, the Cincinnati St. Xavier product pursued another one -- coaching.
With a 72-4 record that includes three sectional, three regional and two semistate titles to go with a 2014 state championship, there’s no debating Ralph, who’s just 34, chose the right path.
“If you would have told me six years ago that we’d be where we’re at right now, I would have said you’re insane,” Ralph said. “The community is football crazy. We were able to get the ball rolling and there’s been almost no looking back. It’s something amazing to be a part of.”
Ralph had worked at St. X, Withrow and Oak Hills in Ohio before the vacancy developed at New Pal, his wife Ashley’s hometown.
“I came and saw a game and my interest was sparked,” he said. “They had some good years, but not much tournament success in a while. They had an interim coach at the time, they were 3-7 (in 2012), the culture wasn’t great, but I could see the talent. They had good players, good kids. The big issue was the weight room wasn’t good. It was almost non-existent.”
If anybody knew of the importance of strength and conditioning, it would be Ralph, who was 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds when he went to Chapel Hill in 2002. He has since built a juggernaut in his own image. The team gained 11,000 pounds in strength in his first two years.
“The big thing was getting the kids to buy in to what it takes to play winning football,” Ralph said. “The effort’s been tremendous.”
La Porte County got its first look at Ralph’s product in 2014, when the Dragons rolled over New Prairie 77-42 in the Class 4A state championship. New Pal moved up to 5A in 2015 and still made it to the finals, losing an incredible 64-61 game to Fort Wayne Snider.
“They had seven D-I kids,” Ralph said.
While it lost to perennial 5A powers Columbus East and Zionsville in the last two sectionals, top-ranked New Pal still hasn’t lost a regular-season contest in Ralph’s tenure. It’s head and shoulders above the Hoosier Heritage Conference field but picked up 6A Center Grove this season, winning 31-9 in Week 2. Center Grove is playing this week in the 6A South Semistate. All the while, the program hasn’t produced a single Division-I player. This season’s squad has at least four prospects in record-breaking running back Charlie Spegal, lineman Austin Keele, defensive back Maxen Hook and defensive end Kyle King.
“We don’t have the greatest players, the greatest athletes here, but we have beaten plenty of teams who do,” Ralph said. “We don’t get the freak show-type of kids. We don’t send kids to Ohio State, Notre Dame, Purdue, IU, Ball State. We have to find ways to balance that. We get a lot out of ourselves. That’s a pat on the back to the staff. They work hard to develop kids and we play exceptionally well as a team. We’re the smallest public school in 5A by a mile, but we’ve proven we can win with a middle of the pack 4A enrollment (1,114). We’re proud of that. Nobody wants to be the group to let that standard down.”
The 5-10, 220-pound Spegal, a Delta transfer, epitomizes the program. Despite truncated work due to numerous blowout wins, he has astounding numbers -- 2,941 yards, averaging 11 yards per carry, and 63 touchdowns -- but his recruiting interest is at Mid-American Conference level at this point.
“He’s pretty special,” Ralph said. “There’s a misconception that we just feed him the ball, but he hasn’t had as many carries as he had at Delta. He’s a big, thick kid, so colleges see him as a fullback and not many schools use fullbacks anymore. He’s strong, physical, he can stretch the edges and he’s caught the ball well on the perimeter. He’s a versatile kid, which makes him all the better, as with any good running back. He’ll do anything he’s asked.”
Even so, Ralph expects to cede the edge in physical talent this week to Michigan City.
“They’ve got great players,” he said. ”(Quarterback Bryce Hayman) is great. (Running back Lyric McFarrin) is exceptional. They have a really solid offensive line. Across the board, they have good weapons. Their defense is amazingly tough. The front four really stands out on film. They’ve got the Purdue commit (Chase Triplett) and the end (Justin Wozniak) is outstanding. You can close your eyes, point your finger and it’ll land on a really good football player. They have a lot of seniors and they were in this spot last year, so they have a lot of experience at this level.”
Class 5A North Semistate
Michigan City (10-2) at New Palestine (12-0), 3 p.m.