By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – Each of the last three seasons West Branch has taken a significant step forward.
From a 6-4 season that featured a first-round playoff exit in 2014 to an 11-1 mark and a spot in the quarterfinals last year the Bears have inched closer to returning to the top of Class 1A.
The next step for West Branch is a big one and the Bears believe they are in position to take it.
“I think the last time we were at the UNI-Dome was in 2011 and that’s definitely a goal,” senior running back Luke Lenoch said. “It’s about getting as far as we can get and getting back to the dome. We are definitely hungry to get back, we know that we have to put in the work and get one percent better each day but we are definitely hungry.”
West Branch won 11 straight to start last season before a 35-28 loss to state champion Regina in the 1A quarterfinals.
As was the case before last season the Bears have a few holes to fill coming off its second straight one-loss season.
Most notably West Branch must replace quarterback Cooper Koenig who accounted for 2,267 yards of total offense and 29 touchdowns and four of its top five receivers.
Still there is enough returning talent for West Branch to return to the state semifinals for the first time since making four straight trips to the UNI-Dome from 2008 to 2011.
“I think every year what has been one of the strong suits is the tradition of this program,” West Branch coach Butch Pedersen said. “They don’t want to be the team that lets somebody else down. When it is their time to step up they are going to step up.”
The list of talent starts on offense where Lenoch headlines a group of five returning starters.
Lenoch was a second-team all-state selection a year ago after rushing for 1,829 yards and 24 touchdowns and has run for more than 4,000 yards in his career.
This season Lenoch will operate behind a veteran offensive line that returns three starters including junior all-state tackle Jacob Barnhart.
“Last year the way it ended wasn’t the way that we wanted,” Barnhart said. “We just want to come back and show people that we can be even better than we were last year.”
Lenoch will shoulder much of the offensive load but the Bears have other weapons.
Senior Cooper Kabela returns after catching 17 passes for 328 yards last season and Pedersen likes what he has seen from some of the Bears emerging playmakers.
“I think the thing that we have to do offensively is we have to be diversified,” Pedersen said. “We have to be able to run the ball, we have to be able to throw the ball and we want to be able to go to a lot of different weapons.”
West Branch will break in a new quarterback with senior Brandon Rummelhart and sophomore Beau Cornwell vying to replace Koenig under center.
Rummelhart completed 7-of-17 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns as a backup last season.
Whoever gets the nod at quarterback will have the luxury of working with a veteran offensive line and one of the top running backs in Class 1A.
“With our big boys up front and Luke that is always a good starting point,” Kabela said. “Our quarterbacks are working hard, we will have a good balanced attack.”
Six starters return on defense including all-state defensive tackle Colton Dietz (6-1, 250) and leading tackler Cale Donovan (6-1, 195).
Donovan made 76 tackles as a junior last year and joins Lenoch (41.5 tackles) in an experienced linebacker group.
“Going into the season last year we didn’t really know what team we were going to be because it was kind of the same story as this year we graduated a lot of seniors and we got better each week and we just kept going,” Kabela said. “We are definitely hungry after what happened at the end of last year, it hurt at first but then you realize that you just have to come back stronger.”