Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – As one of the state’s premier Class 1A high school football programs, West Branch isn’t used to the underdog label.
So it didn’t sit well when senior receiver Ben Thompson started hearing that his team was being picked to lose to West Liberty in the season opener on Friday at home.
Thompson even saw it in print as the Iowa City Press-Citizen predicted a West Liberty victory by two touchdowns.
But instead, it was Thompson and his cohorts who prevailed by two touchdowns as West Branch defeated West Liberty 35-20 before a packed house at the Little Rose Bowl.
“The Press-Citizen said 31-14 and three was no way in hell that was going to happen,” Thompson said. “So we came out fired up and we knew that was not going to be the score.”
Junior quarterback Beau Cornwell threw four touchdown passes, including two to Thompson, and sophomore Tanner Lukavsky rushed for 120 yards and scored three touchdowns to lead the Bears.
Cornwell hardly could wait for Friday’s game to start after breaking his collar bone in the second game of last season.
“It felt great to finally get back out there with the guys,” said Cornwell, who completed 11-of-20 passes for 170 yards. “They really helped me out. Our line really stepped up.”
Nearly half of West Branch’s starters on Friday were freshmen and sophomores.
“That’s unheard of at West Branch,” said West Branch head coach Butch Pedersen, who earned his 288th career win on Friday.
In addition to only being a sophomore, Lukavsky also has the daunting tasks of replacing star running back Luke Lenoch, who rushed for over 6,000 yards during his illustrious career. The 210-pound Lukavsky complemented Cornwell’s passing by running hard between the tackles.
Lukavsky helped to secure the victory by blasting through a huge hole up the middle and then racing 60 yards for a touchdown with 7 minutes, 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Neither team would score from that point on.
“A lot of people expect us to not run that much because Luke is gone,” Cornwell said. “But I think we really showed that we can pound it inside, and then when they load the box up, we’ll just shred them with passing.”
West Liberty got on the board first as speedy receiver Tanner Iske slipped past his defender and caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Seth Feldman with 5:06 left in the first quarter.
West Branch answered back barely three minutes later as Lukavsky caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Cornwell.
The Bears took the lead when Cornwell connected with Thompson for a 10-yard scoring strike with 2:01 left in the first quarter.
Javier Zamudio converted the point-after kick to give West Branch a 14-7 lead.
West Liberty then even the score at 14 on a four-yard touchdown run by Feldman, which was followed by Bryce Esmoil's point-after kick with 10:04 left in the second quarter.
Lukavsky then scored his second touchdown in the first half on a three-yard pass from Cornwell with 7:21 left before halftime.
The Bears led 21-14 at halftime, but the players still were upset because West Liberty running back Joe Kelly had shredded them for 198 rushing yards in the first two quarters.
“We were just angry,” said West Branch star lineman Jacob Barnhart said. “We were just angry. We were ready to play (in the second half).
“At halftime, the (coaches) told us what we needed to do and we did it. We just came out there and wanted to win this game.”
Kelly only had six rushing attempts for 17 yards in the second half as the West Branch defense began to control the line of scrimmage, thanks largely to the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Barnhart.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Pedersen said of Barnhart. “Iowa is looking at him. Some other schools are looking at him. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. And the thing I like about him, he’s just a wonderful human being.”
West Liberty self-destructed throughout Friday’s game, which saw it commit 11 penalties and four turnovers.
Thompson scored his second touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Cornwell with 9:21 left in the third quarter. That expanded West Branch’s lead to 28-14, but the Comets still had some fight left.
Iske took a hand-off on a reverse and then raced 32 yards for a touchdown with 8:26 left to play. However, the point-after kick failed, making the score 28-20.
Lukavsky then broke loose for his long touchdown run to seal the deal.
Pedersen was confident that his players would respond to the challenge in the second half.
“I condition the kids really, really hard and I knew they’d come back in the second half and continue to play hard and they did,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen also had confidence in his junior quarterback. About the only thing Cornwell did wrong on Friday was miss a field goal in second half.
“Beau’s a great talent at quarterback," Pedersen said. "He did a lot of things right. I’m disappointed that he missed that field goal. But you can’t always be perfect every night can you?”
First downs 17 12
Rushes-yards 42-304 28-145
Passing yards 138 170
Fumbles-lost 3-2 2-0
Penalties-yards 11-97 6-48
West Liberty 7 7 0 6 – 20
West Branch 14 7 7 7 – 35
WL – Tanner Iske 37 pass from Seth Feldman (Bryce Esmoil kick)
WB – Tanner Lukavsky 19 pass from Beau Cornwell (Javier Zamudio kick)
WB – Ben Thompson 10 pass from Cornwell (Zamudio kick)
WL – Seth Feldman 4 run (Esmoil kick)
WB – Tanner Lukavsky 3 pass from Cornwell (Zamudio kick)
WB – Ben Thompson 11 pass from Cornwell (Zamudio kick)
WL – Tanner Iske 32 run (kick failed)
WB – Tanner Lukavsky 60 run (Zamudio kick)
RUSHING – WL: Joe Kelly 24-215, Seth Feldman 16-45, Tanner Iske 2-44. WB: Tanner Lukavsky 21-120, Jacob Graves 2-15, Beau Cornwell 4-6, Brett Schiele 1-4.
PASSING – WL: Seth Feldman 15-22-138-2. WB: Beau Cornwell 11-20-170
RECEIVING – WL: Jackson Gingerich 7-59, Joe Kelly 4-31, Tanner Iske 3-40, Justis Dengler 2-17. WB: Ben Thompson 4-58, Jacob Graves 3-78, Tanner Lukavsky 2-22, Brady Lukavsky 1-9.