By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – Between tiebreakers and at-large qualifiers the scenarios for being one of the teams in this year’s scaled down 16-team playoff field can get complicated.
With two games remaining in the regular season the route to a ninth consecutive playoff appearance for West Branch couldn’t be more clear cut.
West Branch (5-2) can secure a playoff spot with back-to-back wins to end the regular season starting with a road game at Tipton on Friday.
“It’s pretty straightforward we just have to win the next two games, that’s about as simple as it gets,” West Branch junior lineman Jacob Barnhart said. “It doesn’t really matter how we get it done as long as we go in there and get wins.”
West Branch controls its own destiny in the race for one of the top guaranteed playoff spots in Class 1A, District 3.
The Bears are tied with Clayton Ridge at 4-1 in district play with two games to play and host the Eagles in the regular season finale.
“We know the position that we are in and we know that we need to win out and that our backs are against the wall,” West Branch senior running back Luke Lenoch said. “We are going to do what we need to do to get to the playoffs.”
The face West Branch is still in the heat of the playoff race is impressive in its own right.
Injuries have played a role in West Branch losing a regular season game for the first time since 2013.
West Branch has lost five key players to season-ending injuries including its top two quarterbacks in sophomore Beau Cornwell and senior Brandon Rummelhart.
Senior Cooper Kabela, the Bears’ top receiver the past two seasons, has stepped in under center and led West Branch to back-to-back wins.
“People are hurt and other people are playing hurt,” West Branch senior lineman Cole Tisinger said. “That stinks at times but we are really coming together.”
Despite the injuries, West Branch finds itself two wins away from a spot in the playoffs which were cut in half from 32 teams to 16 teams this season.
The first test comes against River Valley Conference neighbor Tipton on Friday.
Tipton is 4-3 in its first season back in Class 1A after going 11-8 the past two seasons in Class 2A.
At 3-2 in District play the Tigers are fighting for their own playoff life after winning three of their last four games.
Tipton has rushed for more than 265 yards in each of its last four games and is averaging 311 yards per game on the ground during that stretch.
West Branch has allowed more than 150 yards rushing just once in its last six games and has held its past two opponents to a combined -2 yards rushing.
“It’s interesting knowing that the fate is in our hands right now,” Barnhart said. “We control our own destiny and we just have to play the way that we play and do the things we always do.
What West Branch has done lately is feed the ball to Lenoch.
The senior running back is averaging better than 210 rushing yards per game during district play and has rushed for more than 225 yards three times in five district games.
Lenoch and the Bears will face a Tipton defense that has allowed more than 183 yards rushing just one time this season, in a season-opening loss to No. 10 Wilton.
The Tigers are allowing 127 rushing yards per game this season and have held two of their last three opponents to 35 yards rushing.
“It’s exciting to be in a situation where we can control our own destiny,” Lenoch said. “We know what we have to do to be successful it’s just a matter of us executing our plan.”