Pedersen: Young team played to strengths
by Gregory R. Norfleet · Sports · November 02, 2017

West Branch coaches looked back on the 2017 season with a pleasant surprise: Despite playing more underclassmen than seniors, the Bears somehow finished the season with an undefeated record, a District 3 title and No. 1 playoff seed.

Head Coach Butch Pedersen called it “a Cinderella season.”

When some media outlets predicted West Branch to earn only a handful of wins, Bears coaches decided to turn that into a rallying point.

“We stressed that point to the kids,” the head coach said. “We wanted to put a chip on their shoulder to prove people wrong. And that helped earlier in the year when we played 2A (West Liberty) and 3A (West Burlington-Notre Dame) schools.”

Offensive Coordinator John Hierseman finished his first season at that position and agreed the 9-1 record turned out better than expected.

“Butch and I talked about that. If anybody would’ve said we’d finish 9-1, we probably would’ve thought they were crazy,” he said. “With all the young kids we have playing and seniors we had to replace — it’s disappointing tonight, but overall, when you stand back and look at it, you’ve got to be really proud of this whole bunch of guys. The small group of seniors who led this team all the way down to the underclassmen who played.”

He also recognized the juniors who, like the seniors, were not know for having a lot of success on sub-varsity teams.

“It’s neat to see those groups of kids all come together and have a positive outcome,” he said. “It bodes well for the program.”

Junior quarterback Beau Cornwell’s 155 passing yards on the final game Friday night pushed him over the 2,000-yard milestone. After 10 games, with 2,125 passing yards, he finishes the season as the No. 1 quarterback in Class 1A and the No. 7 quarterback across all classes, setting a West Branch school record along the way.

“Beau was absolutely, easily one of the most improved on the team,” Pedersen said. “He did everything he was told. He was our catalyst. How Beau went, the rest of us went. He was a great leader for us.”

The coach noted that Cornwell can also run and kick well.

“I’ve got nothing but praise for him,” he said. “We won a lot of games with his skills.”

On the other end of those passes were two seniors — Ben Thompson and Jacob Graves — with more than 500 receiving yards each.

After 10 games, Thompson finishes the season with 663 yards on 40 receptions, or 16.6 yards per catch, and 11 touchdowns. As for receiving yards, he finishes third among all of Class 1A and second in District 3.

Graves finishes 10 games with 588 yards on 48 catches, or 12.3 yards per catch, and four receiving touchdowns. With that many receiving yards, he finished sixth in Class 1A and fourth in District 3.

Now add in there junior Brett Schiele with 40 catches for 397 yards, or 9.9 yards per catch, and two receiving touchdowns. He’s No. 8 in District 3 with receiving yards, making West Branch one of two District 3 teams, including Bellevue, with three receivers in its Top Ten. And West Branch’s top three receivers’ 1,648 yards beats Bellevue’s 1,540 by more than 100 yards.

“This is as good of a group of receivers we’ve had in West Branch” in years, Pedersen said, with up-and-comers junior Brady Lukavsky, sophomore Tanner Lukavsky, sophomore Dakota Kaalberg, sophomore Peter Espensen and sophomore Wyatt Goodale adding to the team’s receiving weapons. “They’re one of the reasons we were 9-0. They had an extraordinary year.”

That turned West Branch into a passing team in 2017, he said, as coaches designed a game plan that fit the players’ strengths.

“We really bonded as a team,” Pedersen said, listing off some of the activities the players participated in outside of practice.

He said that carried over to the coaching staff.

“They all performed extremely well and also wanted to prove people wrong, so they taught the kids to be the best they could be,” he said.

Pedersen said that in the 2017 season he introduced a new practice format that used a timer and moved players from station to station.

“That forced coaches to be extremely organized and really take care of the practice time we got,” he said. “And it helped the tempo of our games … The components were really key and it was such a turnaround for us.”

Of the senior West Branch players, the one in most demand by college teams is Jacob Barnhart, courted by top-tier Division I teams like the University of Iowa, Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa, as well as Division II and below. The co-captain plays both offensive and defensive line, stands 6-5 and weighs about 300 pounds. He collected 26.5 tackles and two solo sacks this season.

“He’s a real leader,” Pedersen said. “He wasn’t really vocal until his senior year, but he will do everything we ask him to. He’s the best offensive lineman in Class 1A and there’s nobody I’ve seen who can play with him at his level. He’s a great athlete and does what’s important to be successful.”

Billy Friis, another co-captain, plays offensive line and defensive end. He collected 33.5 tackles and two solo sacks.

Pedersen called Friis one of his most-improved players on the team, and credited him for a smooth transition from tight end to offensive tackle, learning well under Assistant Coach Jack Rummells.

A two-year defensive starter, Friis “did things first for the team and second for himself,” the coach said.

Senior Marcus Gould served on special teams and scout teams, “and played to his utmost.”

“He’s a very hard worker and got a lot of good looks during practice,” the coach said. “You won’t see him a lot on Friday nights, but he’s a valuable asset and one of the reasons we went 9-0.”

Senior Luca Passeri also played on special teams and spent some time on defense.

“He came in with blazing speed … and gave a good effort,” Pedersen said. “He was another one who put team first and never worried about playing time. He was always asking what he could do to make the team better.”

Andrew Black played offensive line, defensive end and linebacker throughout the season. This senior collected 45 tackles and four solo sacks this past season.

“This was his best season,” Pedersen said of No. 60.

Pedersen called him one of the more versatile players, excelling in both the linebacker and defensive tackle positions and likely could have done so in other key spots.

“He has power and drive-blocking abilities,” the coach said. “He really became a leader, both as a football player and a human being. I couldn’t be any happier with him.”

Going back to Graves, Pedersen called this co-captain “Mr. Versatility,” reaching a level that caught the attention of college teams.

Playing safety, cornerback, receiver, running back and kick and punt returner, Graves “did everything well.”

“He worked his heart out for the team,” Pedersen said. “I was impressed. He wants to play in college and there are teams interested.”

The final senior, Thompson, has improved from his sophomore year to the present, the coach said, and is another versatile player for the Bears.

“He’s one of the best receivers in Class 1A and a hitter on defense,” Pedersen said. “He will stick you, a good cover man and a versatile defensive back.”

The upside to having so few seniors is that many starting players are eligible to return for 2018.

But Pedersen said 2017’s success is not guaranteed to carry over unless the players keep up in the weight room and stay sharp in the off-season.

“They have to get in there and work,” he said. “Other schools we play do just that, so we can’t rest on our laurels. We want multi-sport athletes, but it’s a 12-month process and they have to budget time and get themselves in the weight room.”

With additional strength and training, players can avoid injury and stay on the field longer.

“We’ve got tremendous memories from this year,” Pedersen said. “But this team — those who come back — need leadership, they need to pick captains and they need to move forward until practice starts again. They have to earn it.”

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