Dengler Esmoil

West Liberty's Talen Dengler hands the ball off to running back Will Esmoil during a game earlier this season. Both Dengler and Esmoil are playing new positions this year and have the Comets in position to win another district title if they can beat Tipton this week.

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — Not all records are created equal.

Last year, West Liberty started off 2-3 but rolled through district play en route to a Class 2A district title and eventual trip to the UNI-Dome.

This year, another 2-3 start had the Comets in a much bigger hole.

That's because the third loss of the season came in West Liberty's district opener, a 31-14 setback to Mount Vernon in which the Comets surrendered the final 17 points. But there wasn't any panic, and thanks to three straight wins, the Comets have themselves in position to return to the playoffs once again.

A win this week over 10th-ranked Tipton would give West Liberty both its second straight district title and an example of the pride that emanates from the program.

"I kept believing in the team," senior quarterback Talen Dengler said. "This shows that if we buy into the program, good things will happen. If we put in the work and we put in the time and we really focus up and pay attention that we can start playing together and start clicking at the right moments and do great things."

Just like last year, the Comets opened the season with a pair of losses to perennial powers West Branch and Solon. They clipped Anamosa then were awarded a win over Washington after Washington had to forfeit because of playing an ineligible player.

Against Mount Vernon, West Liberty was tied and had a chance to take a lead before a fumble snowballed into 17 straight points for the Mustangs.

With their backs against the wall, the Comets went back to work, and got a big boost when Tipton beat Mount Vernon the following week.

"I think the kids took their cues from the coaches, and we didn't dwell on it too much," head coach Jason Iske said. "We knew there were basically three plays in that entire game that decided it. ... The kids took that to heart and didn't dwell on it too much."

Still, it wasn't easy, and it took a stop on a 2-point conversion in overtime to edge Camanche 21-19, setting up this week's showdown.

"We made it clear from Day 1 that defense is going to win us ball games," said senior Gavin Chown, who is second on the team behind Will Esmoil with 58 tackles. "That was one of the best games I've ever played in. ... Everyone did their job, and that's why we won that game."

There were questions surrounding this year's team after graduating 12 seniors, including all-district quarterback Seth Feldman and all-state lineman Spencer Daufeldt. Dengler moved from receiver to quarterback despite throwing just six passes last year. He's produced over 900 yards of offense. Esmoil moved into the backfield to play running back for the first time in his career and has rushed for 755 yards and nine touchdowns.

The fact the Comets are once again in position to reach the postseason perhaps makes this year a little sweeter.

"Us seniors, we never thought we'd be able to do this, yet here we are, able to fight for a district title for our senior year, and we're trying to bring back another trophy to the West Liberty community," Dengler said. "It's been really interesting and really fun because no one thought I'd play quarterback or Will would play running back. It's just a bunch of surprises, and it just keeps getting better and better each day."

West Liberty will have its hands full with Tipton. The Tigers feature one of the best rushing attacks in Class 2A, with nearly 2,200 yards on the ground and an average of 6.0 yards per carry. There are multiple weapons, as four players have at least 300 yards on the ground entering this week.

The Comets know they'll need to be disciplined to hold the Tigers in check. Sitting at 11th in the latest Iowa Ratings Percentage Index, a loss doesn't necessarily eliminate West Liberty from the playoffs, but the Comets would like to keep their fate in their own hands.

"We've got to stop the run for sure," Chown said. "We're going to make sure the run's stopped. We're going to say, you can try to pass on us but you will not run on us.

"It will be the biggest game of the year so far but just having all these guys, with all the confidence we have right now, it will be a good game."

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