Prep Football

Western Dubuque is back in the state football finals, and this time, Ben Bryant is right in the mix

A torn ACL kept him out of the 2018 run, but he'll be a key figure when the Bobcats face Solon for the 3A title

Western Dubuque’s Ben Bryant (right) runs from Lewis Central’s Easton Dermody for a touchdown during the second quarter of their Class 3A semifinal football game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls last Thursday. The Bobcats face Solon in the championship game at 7 p.m. Thursday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Western Dubuque’s Ben Bryant (right) runs from Lewis Central’s Easton Dermody for a touchdown during the second quarter of their Class 3A semifinal football game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls last Thursday. The Bobcats face Solon in the championship game at 7 p.m. Thursday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

EPWORTH — When the postseason began, the bridle came off Ben Bryant.

“We were very conservative with him early in the season,” Western Dubuque football coach Justin Penner said. “We wanted to get him to the playoffs healthy.”

The majority of Western Dubuque’s key players will make their second consecutive appearance in the Class 3A championship game Thursday night; the top-ranked Bobcats (12-0) face No. 3 Solon (12-0) at 7 p.m. at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

But not all of them.

Bryant suffered a torn ACL in Week 7 of the 2018 regular season, in a loss at Cedar Rapids Xavier.

“I got caught from behind, and I got hit from the top, too,” Bryant said. “I played one more snap, but I knew something just wasn’t right.

“The Xavier trainer said I needed to get it checked out.”

So while the Bobcats made their run to the state finals (they lost to Xavier again, 34-20), Bryant was forced to watch, to wait and to begin rehab.

Nine months later, he was back on the baseball diamond, but wasn’t yet at full strength.

“A lot of it was physical therapy, a lot was getting my strength back,” he said. “I don’t think I could have gotten through it so quick without my family’s support and having the community behind me.”

Penner started Bryant slowly this fall. In the regular season, he averaged 8.8 carries and 63.9 yards per game while Jake Hosch got the bulk of the touches out of the backfield.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

In three playoff games, Bryant’s production has risen to 14.7 carries and 112 yards per contest.

He enters Thursday’s game with 911 yards on 123 carries (7.4 yards per carry) with 13 touchdowns, and 24 receptions for 293 yards and three TDs. In addition, he is third on the team with 44.5 tackles, plus two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

“Ben gives us the never-been-there-before edge that we need,” Penner said.

Bryant downplayed that statement.

“I don’t know if I’d say that,” he said. “I haven’t been carrying the team. There have been a lot of factors, and it’s nice to have another week out there with the guys.

“It’s crazy ... we’ve worked all of our lives to get to where we are right now.”

The Bobcats have been practicing this week at night, at the University of Dubuque, to prepare themselves for the time of kickoff, and for the artificial turf inside the UNI-Dome.

Last year’s march to the final — and the loss to Xavier — provided lessons for this year’s run.

“It taught us that all 11 guys have to execute on every single play if we want to be successful,” Penner said. “It humbles you. Humility serves us this week, and every week we’ve been going for 13 weeks.”

By most accounts, Western Dubuque is the favorite Thursday. The Bobcats have been ranked No. 1 all season. If you subscribe to the BC Moore computer projections, they are 12-point favorites to finish the job.

But the Spartans have tradition. And plenty of talent.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“What they do, they execute,” Penner said. “They’ve won multiple state championships.

“They have three Division-I players, and we don’t.”

To complete their destiny, Bryant said, “we’ve got to trust each other, play as a team and play Bobcat football.”

Which is what, precisely?

“It means playing with a bunch of grit. All gas, no brakes.”

Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.