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Pride pushing West Branch into another season

Bears eager to build on last season, led by running back Luke Lenoch

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WEST BRANCH — There’s no doubting or denying losing is hard.

No amount of “we played a great game” numbs the pain from a loss in the playoffs, especially when it comes to a heated rival and marks your first loss of the season.

No one at West Branch is denying those facts.

That also is something those returning can use. Of course motivation from a painful loss is not the sole reason to come back and play harder than ever, but to deny its power is foolhardy. Fortunately for West Branch, the man in charge has been doing this a while, and knows what buttons to push.

“Every year, West Branch football players work extremely hard. It’s expected. They know it’s expected. It’s the tradition of the program,” said head coach Butch Pedersen. “We talk about it quite a bit and I think they understand the responsibility. I think they don’t want to be the team that breaks that tradition.

“We look to the future — that’s why God put a nose on the front of your face.”

The Bears’ loss to Iowa City Regina in the Class 1A playoffs last season certainly didn’t define the season, but put an unfortunate period on what they felt like could’ve been a very special ending.

Instead, they come back with the bulk of their offensive production still intact, and believe a season like last year’s is well within their grasp.

The headliner is senior running back Luke Lenoch, who ran for 1,829 yards (8.1 yards per carry) and 24 touchdowns last season, bringing his career total to 4,184 heading into the season. He also has 57 career rushing touchdowns. Those marks put him 217 yards and nine touchdowns from school records held by Cade Jones.

Having a guy like Lenoch there to anchor your offense doesn’t hurt.

Lenoch deflected, though, when asked about his role and impact on the team, which was unsurprising to his coaches. He didn’t care much when offered his stats or how close he was to breaking records, and touted an offensive line anchored by senior captain Cole Tisinger, as well as seniors Jacob Barnhart and John Krall.

A quarterback battle between sophomore Beau Cornwell and senior Brandon Rummelhart — who saw some spot duty backing up Cooper Koenig last year — isn’t expected to slow anything down. The players feel strongly they can pick up where that left off last season, too.

“It means a lot to have people recognize you, but I’ll refer to my linemen and receivers,” Lenoch said. “It’s not just me getting the ball and making plays. Everyone needs to get the recognition they deserve.

“We lost a lot of guys, but we bring back 3/4 of the line. There’s a lot of spots to fill, but we always manage to find the guys that are going to step up, be physical and make plays. You just have to give them their chance.”

West Branch faces a bit of a gauntlet schedule-wise to start the season. The Bears begin by going down the road to face a much-improved Class 2A West Liberty team, then welcome Class 3A West Burlington-Notre Dame to the Little Rose Bowl for their first two non-district games.

Pedersen chuckled when he talked about the schedule, saying not many 1A teams play out of class twice like that, but is eager for the challenge and what it will teach his team about themselves.

Their hunger to get back going and correct what they felt was a wrong in last season’s end is plainly evident by how they’ve attacked fall practice.

“The day after (the Regina loss), I thought, ‘Next year is the year’ and couldn’t wait to get back to here,” senior Cale Donovan said. “I definitely use that as fuel. I’m going to use it to take us as far as I can.

“We’re driven by (West Branch history), too. It means something to be a West Branch Bear and it sinks in once you’re here.”

Ultimately last year is last year, and the players all know that. But pride in the program makes the guys feel losses like that harder.

They’re looking ahead this season and desperately don’t want to be the group that doesn’t carry the program tradition forward. Pedersen knows how to play on that pride factor and draw out the best in his players, and this year won’t be any different.

“I think we’re going to be pretty balanced. We’re going to be big up front and we’re strong perimeter-wise,” Pedersen said. “Any time you have pride in your program and pride in yourself as a human being, you try to be as good as you can possibly be. Our mantra is, ‘If you improve each day by 1 percent, by the end you’ll be a good football team.’ We try to do that, and work extremely hard at it.”

WEST BRANCH AT A GLANCE

• Coach: Butch Pedersen (34th year, 281-69 career record all at West Branch)

• Last year: 11-1 (lost in Class 1A quarterfinals to I.C. Regina)

• Top returning letterwinners: RB/LB Luke Lenoch, WR/DE Cooper Kabela, OL Cole Tisinger, OL Jacob Barnhart, OL John Krall, DB Garrett Tucker, FB/LB Cale Donovan, DL Colton Dietz, DL Jake Evans, WR/DB Jacob Graves, QB Brandon Rummelhart, QB/K Beau Cornwell, WR/DB Ben Thompson

• Key losses: QB Cooper Koenig, RB Devin Kindon, WR Matt Shawver, WR Aaron Barnes, Jake Evans; Hunter Wargo; Garrett Tucker.

• Key to making the playoffs: Relying on what works, and what works is the run game. Offensive coordinator Jared Tylee said during camp the offense has to strike a balance between using Luke Lenoch too much and not outthinking themselves and going away from him. There’s plenty returning on the offensive line, too, so sticking with what works while building on last year leaves West Branch in good position.

• Games to watch: Week 1 at West Liberty, Week 2 vs West Burlington, Week 5 at Bellevue, Week 9 vs Clayton Ridge

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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