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West Liberty's A.J. Lenz (left), quarterback Seth Feldman (center) and Coy Ruess run with the rest of the Comets to their fans as they celebrate their quarterfinal win over Benton Community at Benton Community High School in Van Horne, Iowa, earlier this season.

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — Last year’s opening round playoff matchup with Cascade was one of the few games in which Will Esmoil got the opportunity to suit up for the West Liberty varsity.

It wasn’t an big night for Esmoil, however, as the then-sophomore played exclusively on kickoffs in West Liberty's 49-21 postseason.

“That was a really cold game,” Esmoil said. “I was like ‘Crap, I didn’t dress warm enough.’”

This year, however, the junior linebacker has much more on his plate.

Esmoil leads the Comets (8-3) with 85 tackles and has tallied 15.5 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries from the outside linebacker position this season. West Liberty has proven to be one of the state’s best defenses, too, as it’s allowed just 7.8 points per game during a seven-game winning streak.

Perhaps even more noteworthy, West Liberty held No. 6 Chariton to just 10 points in the opening round of the playoffs and No. 4 Benton Community to 14 points in the quarterfinals. Esmoil’s combined stats in those two games: 15.5 tackles, four tackles for loss.

“It’s crazy,” Esmoil said of his season. “It’s fun, that’s what it is.”

Not only was Esmoil not a varsity regular a year ago, but he also didn’t even record a tackle. That wasn’t due to a lack of talent, but instead, because he had talented players in front of him on the depth chart like Jackson Gingerich and current seniors Austin Beaver and Coy Ruess.

When it became evident this year would be Esmoil’s turn, head coach Jason Iske has no reservations in slotting the inexperienced junior into the starting lineup.

“The highest compliment you can give a player is saying he’s a football player,” Iske said. “You watch Will Esmoil play the game and he’s a football player. He just has a knack for being around the ball. He knows how to maneuver around blockers and make plays.”

In addition to Esmoil and some new pieces in the secondary and up front, the Comet defense has taken on a new look this year thanks to a schematic change. West Liberty ran a 4-3 defense last year, but with an abundance of skill players and a shortage of linemen, Iske opted to switch to a 3-4 scheme this year.

“Coach (Shawn) Kivi has done a great job of everything,” Iske said of implementing the new defense.

“I think it just took three or four weeks not only for the players to get adjusted and get used to the system but also to trust it and trust each other within the system. When we started realizing ‘Do my job and my teammate will pick me up,’ that’s when good things started happening.’”

Of course, it helps that the Comets have the perfect 6-foot-1, 275-pound piece to put at nose guard in their new scheme.

“We liked the idea of Spencer (Daufeldt) playing the nose and giving people fits up front,” Iske said. “You have to double-team him. You can’t get away with single blocking him.”

Daufeldt has 65.5 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks despite facing a double-team almost every play. There have even been a few times where Daufeldt has seen triple-teams.

“It’s a great challenge to get double-teamed, even triple-teamed on some plays,” Daufeldt said. “I know that frees up a teammate to make plays, and they do make plays. That’s why our defense is so good because they take advantage of those opportunities.”

Indeed, the West Liberty defense has been far more than a two-man show. Ruess and Beaver have proven to be excellent linebackers once again this season as they rank third and fourth on the team in tackles with 55 and 53, respectively.

The secondary, even though it’s young, is talented. Ely Gingerich is the lone senior and has been “super solid” according to Iske. Sophomore Talen Dengler is “the quarterback of the defense” and made a game-changing interception a week ago in Benton.

“He makes sure we’re in the right set and coverage and everything like that,” Iske said of Dengler. “We wouldn’t be half as good without him setting us up.”

And then there’s freshman Jahsiah Galvan, who was called up midway through the season and played his first game at cornerback against Mount Vernon. Galvan’s emergence allowed quarterback Seth Feldman to focus solely on offense unless he’s needed to guard a taller receive as he was last week.

Add all of that together and it equals a defense that Esmoil believes can “stop almost any team there is.” That will be tested Saturday night at the UNI-Dome when No. 16 West Liberty takes on No. 1 ranked Prairie City-Monroe and its offense that’s tops in Class 2A in seven categories.

But the Comets are confident in what they have, too, and that starts on defense.

“We think we’re the best defense out there,” Daufeldt said. “We want to make plays and win ballgames.”

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