WEST LIBERTY, Iowa − Before last Friday, every player on the West Liberty football team had always known Week 9 to be nothing more than the finish line, one final opportunity to generate momentum heading into another offseason.
Bryce Esmoil is the lone Comet who started on a 2014 West Liberty team that followed up a state playoff appearance the previous year with an abysmal 0-9 season. More started seeing action a year later, when the Comets went 1-8.
2016’s four-win improvement was certainly a turning point, but 2017 has become leap year.
With a win over Camanche last Friday and a Williamsburg loss to Mount Vernon, West Liberty secured the second spot in Class 2A District 5 and drew a first-round playoff matchup against No. 2 Cascade (9-0) tonight at 7 p.m.
It’s no surprise to the Comets that they’re in the postseason for the first time since 2013 and first time since Jason Iske took over as head coach three years ago. The path they’ve taken, however, is another story.
“I think we somewhat expected it,” senior linebacker Jackson Gingerich said. “That was our goal, making it here. If we fell short, we fell short. Now that we’re here it feels great.”
West Liberty opened its season with a 35-20 road loss to West Branch, joining South Central Calhoun (8-1), Mount Vernon (8-1), PCM (8-1), Union (6-3) and Centerville (6-3) as five out of 32 Class 2A teams to advance to the playoffs despite losing their first game of the season. Three weeks later they found themselves in a shootout with 1-8 Northeast, narrowly escaping with a 52-50 victory and later becoming one of just four teams in the 2A playoff field that has given up 50 points in a game this season.
In Week 6, the Comets lost a 21-20 heartbreaker at Mediapolis, seemingly dashing any playoff hopes with a road game at Williamsburg, a team they had never beaten in school history, and a home matchup against Mount Vernon looming. The Comets knocked off the Raiders, the top-ranked team in the state at the time, 14-9, and then took a 27-7 lead over Mount Vernon in the second quarter before surrendering a 34-27 loss.
Again it seemed like West Liberty’s playoff hopes were on the ropes, needing a win over Camanche and Williamsburg to lose to Mount Vernon in the final week. The Comets took care of business on their end as Joe Kelly rushed for a school record 345 yards and the team collected a school record 592 yards on the ground in a 45-22 win. Then they got some help from the Mustangs, who defeated Williamsburg 42-14.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” Kelly said about the team advancing to the playoffs. “We’ve come together really well as a team, each one of us has done our job, and that’s what’s got us this far.”
The scene at Wednesday’s practice was loose. Players were having fun and joking around, and wearing what looked like a yellow hairnet, Iske was taking snaps under center by the end of it. Not the cornerback/do-it-all running back Tanner Iske, but head coach Jason Iske.
“These guys, they come to practice, they always have energy, they always have fun,” Jason said. “Trying to reel it in and focus them sometimes can be a challenge, but when they are focused like (Wednesday) we had a great practice. They’re just a very loose group, they’re a fun group.
“We just have to know that as coaches and play to that because when they’re loose and having fun, that’s when they’re playing their best.”
While every player on West Liberty will be navigating uncharted waters tonight, they’re equipped with one of the top rushing attacks in Class 2A that ranks second in yards (2,955), fourth in yards per carry (7.6) and third in rushing touchdowns (35).
And about that defense? Remove the 52-50 win over Northeast from the equation, and West Liberty opponents are averaging just 18 points per game.
Cascade, meanwhile, is scoring 38 points per game and has held opponents to seven points or fewer in over half of its games this season.
“I expected the playoffs, I think the players expected the playoffs,” Jason said. “We had a couple games that we wish we had back. Honestly, I don’t think there was a single game that any of us thought we were going to lose. We felt confident, we felt sure of ourselves. Being here in the playoffs, that was definitely a goal of ours, we expected it.
“We’ve played Mount Vernon, we’ve played Williamsburg. Those are two of the best teams in the state. We beat one of them, the other one we had on the ropes. We know we belong. We know we’re right here with everybody else.”