WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — West Liberty's football team might not have strength in numbers, but the Comets feel like they can make up for it with some good in-house competition.
Coming off last season’s 8-4 record that culminated in a state semifinal trip and an appearance at the UNI-Dome, West Liberty lost some key contributors.
Specifically, the losses of Seth Feldman, Spencer Daufeldt, Gabriel Melendez and Coy Ruess figure to loom large, at least in the short term. And West Liberty goes into the season with just 22 players on the varsity roster.
But the team does exhibit a mix of players with some degree of big-game experience. Many of the players back this season were on that much-accomplished squad of 2018, albeit maybe not in major roles.
Junior Lake Newton is one player back who saw the ball plenty. Newton had a team-high 31 receptions for 609 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He'll have to develop chemistry with a new quarterback as Talen Dengler takes over for Feldman.
The success of West Liberty’s season may come down to how well the Comets fill those gaps.
If one were to put the ultimate positive spin on it, having some in-house competition for some key roles on a team that reached the semifinals for the first time in 31 years is a good thing.
That’s how Comets head coach Jason Iske sees it.
“Maybe our numbers aren’t high, but we got a number of guys that can play,” Iske said. “You can have 40 guys on a team but if 14 of them don’t play, what do you really have?
“We’re looking at 22 varsity players and we feel like all of them can play. We’re not worried about playing a single one of them."
The Comets want to learn from and bank on past success. They also treat this season as their own, separate mission.
“I think we lost a lot of guys from last year, but we’re all out here working hard (and) trying to get better.” senior Gavin Chown said. “We still have a lot of experience from “The Dome” on our team. It’s a long season, we (have) to buy-in.”
“I guess I don’t look at it so much as like a next step-type thing," Iske said when asked if he’s looking to build on last season. "It’s just kinda, next man up."
That mindset has trickled down.
“It’s kind of like half-and-half,” senior Will Esmoil said regarding balancing past success with focusing on the future.
Esmoil, the team's leading tackler, is coming off a season in which he earned a first-team nod on the Class 2A all-state team.
The seniors on the team know they share some responsibility in bringing the underclassmen along on a bit of hurried timeline.
They feel up to the task.
“We’re just trying to show (the underclassmen) hard work and how to keep working,” Esmoil said. “We do have a lot of new shoes to fill. We have a lot of younger guys that are working their way up.
“(We want) to be district champs, same as last year."
Regardless, at a minimum, last season provides the possibilities.
“I think we have good chemistry,” Iske said. “Those are some of the things that are gonna carry us through this season."
To find the strength of the team might be to find the soul of the squad, an important attribute that may not necessarily be seen but can be felt, especially by those on the team.
But don't put too much weight into what is missing. The roster has plenty coming back. And West Liberty has a whatever-it-takes attitude that seems to be contagious.
"On the field, we have tough kids," Iske said. "They like to hit, they like to tackle, block. Everybody blocks, receivers do a great job of blocking."