WEST BRANCH — If West Branch plans to punch its ticket to the state football playoffs for an 11th consecutive season, it will take a collective “perfect effort.”
That’s because the Bears feature a schedule that presents several new challenges.
Butch Pedersen, who’s entering his 36th season as the West Branch head coach, said this year’s schedule is one of the most excruciating he’s ever seen.
“We’re going to play five or six teams that are going to be in the playoffs,” Pedersen said. “We want to be one of those five or six. And if we play with perfect effort, the winning will take care of itself.”
Three of West Branch’s first four non-district matchups are against Class 2A schools. Then, once 1A District 4 play begins, the Bears will face three new district opponents — Dyersville Beckman, Cascade and Northeast. All were 2A schools a year ago.
And Bellevue, which finished just a game behind West Branch in 2017, will remain a tough out in district play.
Fortunately, the Bears have plenty of experience returning.
A lot of that experience resides in the arm — and leg — of senior Beau Cornwell. Cornwell is not only the quarterback, he’s also the team’s kicker and punter.
Cornwell was an all-state player last season, throwing for 2,125 yards and 20 touchdowns, and rushing for eight more TDs. Oh, and he converted 8-of-11 field goals, one of which was a 42-yard game winner.
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“I love playing all three positions,” Cornwell said. “There’s nothing like handling all of the pressure of being a quarterback, kicker and a punter.”
Joining Cornwell in West Branch’s backfield is junior running back Tanner Lukavksy. Last season, Lukavsky rushed for 10 TDs and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
And while the Bears had success on the ground last year, they were perhaps even more potent through the air. West Branch had three receivers who had 40 receptions. Two of those three are gone, but the Bears return one member of the 40-reception club in Brett Schiele.
“I think Brett will be one of the best receivers in our league,” Pedersen said.
And despite losing two key receivers, Pedersen believes the team has enough athletes who will step up and fill the void.
“I think we have enough weapons that we’re going to be able to keep our opponents off balance,” Pedersen said.
Schiele also will be a key cog in West Branch’s defensive backfield. Last season, he tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
The linebacking corps may be the backbone of the Bears’ defense. The unit will be manned by John Hatfield, Lukavksy and Cameron Howsare. All were starters in 2017.
“We think that with three starting linebackers coming back, we’re going to be pretty salty,” Pedersen said.
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Up front, West Branch will be led by sophomore defensive end Jeff Bowie, who led the team with seven sacks as a freshman last season.
With several key players returning, it’s easy to see why Pedersen has high expectations.
“To win in this district and with this type of schedule we have to be consistent,” he said.
West Branch, at a glance
Coach: Butch Pedersen (36th year as head coach at West Branch, 296-74)
Last year: 9-1, Class 1A District 3 champion, lost to Pleasantville in first round of state playoffs
Top returners: QB Beau Cornwell, WR/DB Brett Schiele, WR Brady Lukavsky, LB John Hatfield, WR/DB Zach Thompson, RB/LB Tanner Lukavsky
Key to making playoffs: West Branch will need to execute its dynamic offensive game plan and avoid turnovers in order to have success against its new district opponents.
Games to watch: Week 1 vs. West Liberty, Week 5 at Bellevue
Aug. 24 — West Liberty
Aug. 31 — at Wapello
Sept. 7 — Williamsburg
Sept. 14 — Tipton
Sept. 21 — at Bellevue
Sept. 28 — North Cedar
Oct. 5 — at Northeast
Oct. 12 — Cascade
Oct. 19 — Beckman