WEST BRANCH — Through 36 years of leading the West Branch football program, Coach Butch Pedersen has continually produced stellar defenses.
With seven returning starters on that side of the ball, the 2019 Bears should only enhance that reputation.
“We are going to be very, very multiple on defense,” Pedersen said. “We are not going to sit around in a base defense. We are going to do a variety of different things. The kids love to play defense here and we feel that defense wins championships, so we are going to get after it like we always do.”
West Branch junior Jeff Bowie, a 6-foot-5 defensive end, is poised for another big year after recording 38.5 tackles, 11.5 for loss and seven sacks as a sophomore. Division I prorams have taken notice, evidenced by scholarship offers from Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech.
“His length is very good,” Pedersen said. “He is very quick off the ball, he has got great technique and he is very coachable. He is the kind of kid that, he has got seven D-1 offers and he acts like he doesn’t have any. He doesn’t have any ego whatsoever.”
While Bowie has followed the Hawkeyes since he was a child given the short distance between West Branch and Iowa City, he insists there is no favorite. But he might have a decision by the end of the calendar year.
“Most of them want me to play a rush end, defensive end,” said Bowie, who also plays on the offensive line for the Bears. “A couple of them said they are just going to see how I grow and if I get to be big enough, they will put me at D-tackle, too.”
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Bowie is joined on the D-line by junior Morgan Hartz, a wrestler termed a “surprise” by Pedersen after bulking up from 180 to 210 pounds.
The linebackers are led by senior Tanner Lukavsky, an all-state selection last year at tailback who holds a preferred walk-on offer from Western Illinois. Joining Lukavsky in the linebacker rotation is junior Cael Fiderleain and seniors Cameron Howsare, Brad Hunger and Matt Paulsen, a team captain who has moved from defensive end to linebacker for his senior season.
“Matt is extremely smart,” said Pedersen, who last season became the 13th coach in state history to eclipse 300 career victories. “To play a linebacker position, you have got to have some intelligence and that is one of the reasons we did that. He also is extremely fast, so he can run to the ball very, very well.”
Another captain, senior Dakota Kaalberg, returns in the defensive backfield alongside seniors Trey Eagle, Wyatt Goodale and Jack Robertson.
“We’re all really excited to be able to play some football again,” Kaalberg said. “Really bonding as a family.”
With Lukavsky ready to repeat his 1,309-yard, 18-touchdown rushing numbers from a year ago, the focus shifts to first-year starting quarterback Gavin Hierseman, a 6-1, 190-pound junior, to keep the defenses honest.
“We are extremely confident with him,” Paulsen said. “He is probably one of the most athletic kids on the field. We are completely confident in him. He is our guy.”
The Bears open the season Aug. 30 at West Liberty.
West Branch Bears
Coach: Butch Pedersen (37th season, 305-76 overall record)
Last year: 9-2, lost in Class 1A state quarterfinals
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Top returners: OL/DE Jeff Bowie, WR/DB Trey Eagle, WR/DB Wyatt Goodale, LB Cameron Howsare, LB Brad Hunger, DB Dakota Kaalberg, RB/LB Tanner Lukavsky, OL/DE Dalyn Pedersen, DB Jack Robertson
Keys to making the playoffs: A first-year quarterback with ample weapons and a stout defense must overcome a schedule that includes three 2A teams and a district slate featuring one-loss Bellevue.
Games to watch: Sept. 27 vs. Bellevue; Oct. 18 at Cascade.
Aug. 30 — at 2A No. 9 West Liberty
Sept. 6 — Wapello
Sept. 13 — Williasmburg
Sept. 20 — at Tipton
Sept. 27 — No. 10 Bellevue
Oct. 4 — North Cedar
Oct. 11 — Northeast
Oct. 18 — at Cascade
Oct. 25 — Dyersville Beckman