INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's how the New Palestine Dragons celebrated the completion of a perfect regular season last Friday at Mount Vernon: The players briefly exchanged high-fives, grabbed some of the congratulatory cake that was delivered to the field and then quietly headed for the team bus after Coach Tim Able previewed a rigorous practice schedule for this week.
For New Palestine, a 9-0 regular-season record isn't the culmination.
The Dragons want to assure it's the springboard to a successful postseason run in Class 4A.
"This year, we want to go further than the second round of the tournament," quarterback Connor Simmons said, referring to his team's unexpected exit in 2010. "So we have some unfinished business to take care of."
New Palestine, ranked No. 1 in the AP media poll, opens the playoffs Friday night against visiting Muncie Central (2-7). Last year's early tourney loss notwithstanding, the Dragons enter the 2011 playoffs as one of the state's hottest teams over the past three years under Able, who is 28-5 at New Palestine. The shutout victory over Mount Vernon was New Palestine's 20th straight win in Hoosier Heritage Conference play.
In last year's sectional, Able's team lost to conference rival Greenfield-Central in a 7-0 stunner after beating the same team 32-0 in the regular season. It left a sour taste, one the Dragons don't want to experience again.
"We have a Muncie Central team (this week) that's going to be coming for us," Simmons said. "We have to be ready."
Simmons is a main man in the Dragons' success. He has passed for a school-record 2,134 yards this season. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he stands tall in the pocket but also maneuvers well when pressured.
"And he's just able to put it right on the money," Able said about Simmons.
Simmons and New Palestine won the Colts' 7-on-7 passing tournament during the offseason and gleaned valuable experience while competing in the nationals. The Dragons' quarterback can target a number of big and tough receivers, including 6-3 Brandon Collins, who has 49 receptions and 779 yards this year. New Palestine has a pair of veteran backs, Matt Siergiej and Austin Monday, who can catch the ball as well as run it.
"We have great receivers," Simmons said. "We worked all winter. We worked all summer. We were just right on target."
For coach Able, however, there are a few concerns about his team's performance over the past two weeks. Too many penalties. Too many of what he calls "B-plus" practices.
"One way or another, we will have A-plus practices every day (this week)," the coach said.
The Dragons thumped their last three opponents of September by a 151-27 margin. Their offense has slowed some in October with a 21-19 victory over Greenfield-Central and the 27-0 triumph at Mount Vernon.
"We've kind of flat-lined it a little bit on offense the last couple of weeks," Able said. "We have to get that stuff fixed, and we will. To our kids' credit, we keep finding ways to get things going."
Able, like his players, views the unbeaten regular season as something to enjoy and discuss during future reunions. For now, however, the Dragons refuse to revel in it.
"Guess what: It's over, and we have to go to the next game and we have to get better," Able said.
UNBEATENS IN THE SPOTLIGHT …
Top-ranked Warren Central heads up the four undefeated teams among the state's biggest schools. The Warriors, red-hot after a 54-21 victory over Center Grove, will tackle North Central (5-4) in their sectional opener. Warren is going for its sixth state championship since 2003. The other unbeatens in Class 5A are No. 3-ranked Penn, No. 6 Castle and No. 7 Homestead.
No. 5-ranked Leo joins New Palestine as the only undefeated teams in this class. If New Palestine is going to win the state title, the Dragons may have to unseat perennial power Indianapolis Cathedral, which has won three of the past five championships. Cathedral, 6-3 and ranked No. 2 by the media and No. 1 in the coaches' poll, is coming off a huge victory over nationally ranked Cincinnati Moeller. New Palestine and Cathedral could meet in the regional round.
Only one team went unbeaten in Class 3A: seventh-ranked Brownstown Central. The Braves, looking for their first football state title, open against Corydon Central (7-2).
If you go by unblemished records, this is the state's toughest class with seven teams at 9-0. The big game this week will match two of them: No. 6 Wheeler at No. 2 Andrean in Sectional 25. Andrean won the state championship in 2004. Wheeler, looking for its first title, allowed its nine opponents this season a total of only 41 points. The other unbeaten teams in Class 2A are No. 5 Bremen, No. 4 Churubusco, No. 7 Fountain Central, No. 3 North Putnam and No. 10 Shenandoah. In Central Indiana, one of the top sectional openers will be North Putnam's trip to Speedway to play the No. 9 Sparkplugs (8-1).
It will be two unbeatens, No. 1 Lafayette Central Catholic against No. 2 Pioneer, in the Class A Sectional 34 opener on Friday. Central Catholic has won 39 straight games and the last two state titles. The Knights get a major boost from Danny Anthrop, a Purdue recruit who stars on offense, defense and special teams. Pioneer, looking for its first state title since 1997, will have to contain Anthrop to get past the opening week. The third undefeated team in this class is No. 3 Linton-Stockton, an offensive juggernaut. The Miners outscored their nine opponents 532-103. They were held under 50 points just once. They scored more than 60 in four games.