WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — West Liberty's football team is back in the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
While doubt might be too strong a word, there was a good amount of uncertainty within the team at the outset of the season.
To be fair, the number of new players learning new positions — as was the case with the Comets — would make any team a little uneasy.
Ahead of its Class 2A first-round playoff clash with Monticello on Friday night, though, the team believes all the kinks have been worked out.
The Comets (6-3) are coming off a week in which they used a blocked extra point by Brodie Kilburn to propel them to a district title and the playoffs.
"We're still on that high from last week," junior Kobe Simon said. "When we got that blocked kick, as soon as we blocked it, I knew (it) was our game to win and when the clock hit zero, it was unbelievable."
It's a feeling West Liberty hopes to carry over to this week.
"I think we have a lot of momentum," West Liberty head coach Jason Iske said. "We just got done with two really tight, nail-biting type ball games with really good opponents.
"Sometimes last year we were dependent on the same couple guys making plays ... the last couple games we've been counting on some other guys that aren't our stars."
Despite an 0-2 start, the Comets got their legs under them to sprint to a 6-1 finish after that disappointing beginning.
"We played some good (non-district) opponents and we were working some guys in," Iske said. "We kinda took our lumps, we knew it was going to be a challenge, but we got through that and have gotten better every week."
The Comets have certainly gotten some mileage out of Will Esmoil's legs and Talen Dengler's arm, both of whom are playing new positions this year.
Esmoil and Dengler were both primarily receivers in 2018, combining for 51 catches. But this season, Dengler took over as starting quarterback to the tune of 743 yards passing and 284 running. Esmoil, converted to running back, finished the regular season with 828 rushing yards on 142 carries.
While Dengler and Esmoil are the key figures offensively, the Comets rely just as much on their defense for success. For that unit, allowing under 20 points has been a recipe for delivering a win this season.
"We didn't really know who was going to play running back this season," Simon said, "but (coach) threw in Will and he's done a tremendous job for us. And Talen as well ... he's done an amazing job."
West Liberty relies on Esmoil on the defensive side as well, but Gavin Chown and Simon are a significant part of the unit's stinginess as well.
All three have recorded more than 50 tackles this season, including a combined 23 for loss.
In the past four weeks, West Liberty's defense hasn't given up 200 yards passing. That is a big matchup to watch against pass-happy Monticello (6-3).
Panther quarterback Jeff Carlson enters the playoffs with 2,347 passing yards and 22 touchdowns on 299 attempts and sports a 62 percent completion rate. Carlson is also Monticello's second-most proficient runner with 133 yards on seven carries.
That big-play offense means opportunities for both sides of the ball, evidenced by the team's 14 interceptions thrown in 2019.
"(The Panthers) throw the heck out of the ball," Iske said. "(We) have to be prepared for that, you can't fall asleep on the run game ... but they have a good quarterback and good athletes on the edge."