Boys Basketball Notebook: West Branch Impressing With Strong Start

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Photo by Jeff Yoder

Ryan Murken

Your Prep Sports

If you didn’t have West Branch penciled in as a top-10 team and one of the final 12 unbeaten teams in Class 2A at the start of the season don’t take it too hard, you certainly aren’t alone.

In fact, even first-year head coach Jason Kern wasn’t sure what to expect with the second and third leading scorers from a year ago (Ben Thompson graduation and Tanner Lukavsky injury) missing this season.

With a 6-0 start to the season West Branch jumped into 2A rankings at No. 8 and has caught the attention of coaches around the state, starting with their own.

“I have been really surprised but at the same time I have seen the work the kids have put in during the offseason,” Kern said of the unbeaten start to the season. “I’m not so much surprised knowing the work they put in but a little by how much success we have been able to have this early with some of the adversity we’ve faced.”

West Branch returned the the top-scorer in 2A from last season in senior point guard Beau Cornwell from last year’s team that went 13-10.

After Cornwell there were plenty of question marks.  

With double-digit scorers Thompson and Lukavsky missing from the lineup the Bears brought back one player outside of Cornwell that scored more than four points per game a year ago, senior Brady Lukavsky.

Those perceived questions have been answered early in the season.

Cornwell leads the team in scoring at 18.8 points per game but four other players are averaging more than 6.3 points per game including three scoring between 9.8 and 12.3 per game.

“We’ve had a whole bunch of guys step up and take that next man in role and really excel in it,” Kern said. “Beau has been a great leader as well as Brady Lukavsky and Zach Thompson and Ted Bridges. We have seniors leading our team and have had some juniors and sophomore and freshman step up.”

Given expanded minutes for the first time seniors Ted Bridges, Brady Lukavsky and Zach Thompson have seized the opportunity.

Brady Lukavsky averaged 5.1 points per game a year ago, Bridges 3.6 and Thompson 1.3.

This season Lukavsky is second on the team with 12.3 points per game while shooting a team-high 46 percent from 3-point range.

Bridges is averaging 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while Thompson is averaging 6.3 points per game after matching his career-high with 10 in a win over Wilton on Tuesday.

Freshman Thomas Gould ranks third on the team averaging 10.8 points per game.

“It’s huge because I think it’s hard to prepare for us because we have so many guys that can step up on any given night,” Kern said. “You never know who is going to score 20.”

Just in case anyone thought the unbeaten start was a fluke West Branch authenticated the strong start with an emphatic 56-42 win at defending state champion Cascade last Friday.

The win was the first regular season won for a River Valley Conference South Division team over the Cougars since the conference formed and handed Cascade its first home loss since a 49-42 setback to Northeast on February 7 of 2017.  

West Branch also became the first RVC team other than Northeast to defeat Cascade since 2016.

“That’s a big time win and a big confidence booster especially going on the road I don’t think they’d lost a game at home in two years,” Kern said. “For our guys to go into an environment like that it shows we can play with any team in the state in 2A and it gives our guys some confidence.”

Rankings Update: West High found itself in a familiar spot atop the Class 4A rankings when the Associated Press released its first poll of the season on Monday.

The defending 4A runner-up Trojans were followed by Waukee, North Scott, Ankeny and Davenport Central in the 4A top five.

West Branch was eighth in the Class 2A poll.

Performances of the Week: West Branch senior Beau Cornwell had 27 points, 11 rebounds and four steals in a 56-42 win over Cascade.

Regina junior Masen Miller had 26 points, nine rebounds and three assists in a 61-40 win over Mid-Prairie

West High senior Patrick McCaffery had 30 points and six rebounds in a 66-36 win over City High.

Liberty High sophomore Ethan O’Donnell had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a 63-53 loss to Waterloo East.

Solon junior AJ Coons had 16 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals in a 55-52 loss to Benton Community.