By Ryan Murken Your Prep Sports
WEST BRANCH – With the playoff field condensed to 16 teams this season plenty of teams enter the final week of the regular season with their postseason fate in flux.
West Branch finds itself in the middle of that group and its uncharted territory for the Bears.
After back-to-back undefeated seasons in which is secured its postseason berth early West Branch (6-2) enters Friday’s home showdown with Clayton Ridge (6-2) squarely on the playoff bubble.
“It’s been a lot different compared to last few years where we go undefeated in the regular season,” West Branch senior Luke Lenoch said. “It’s stressful but it’s fun, we know each week that we have show up every day and we have to work hard for the game coming up on Friday and do what we have to do to win the ball game.”
West Branch can still reach the playoffs for the ninth straight season even with a loss on Friday.
However, the Bears can avoid the worry of an at-large playoff qualification, complicated point differential scenarios and scoreboard watching with a win Friday at the Little Rose Bowl that would clinch the runner-up spot in Class 1A, District 3.
“It would mean a lot to win and make it to the playoffs, especially with the injuries we’ve had and what we’ve had to deal with but we expected to make it this far,” West Branch senior Cole Tisinger said. “To get the playoffs with the way this year has gone would be huge.”
To punch an automatic ticket to the 1A playoffs West Branch will need to find a way to contain one of the top offenses in Class 1A led by one of the best quarterbacks in the class.
Led by senior dual threat quarterback Jace Moore, Clayton Ridge enters Friday’s regular season finale seventh in 1A in total offense average 410 yards per game and 10th in scoring at 38 points per contest.
“Offensively they are extremely, extremely gifted,” West Branch coach Butch Pedersen said. “They have speed, they are diversified, they can run they can pass. They are as good as I’ve seen on tape for quite some time.”
Moore has been a big reason for the Eagles’ offensive success.
The senior ranks second in Class 1A with 1,637 passing yards and 23 touchdowns and has also rushed for 531 yards and five scores.
“They have a great quarterback and an impressive offense,” West Branch senior Cale Donovan said. “On tape it seems like they are probably the best offensive team we have seen.”
Clayton Ridge is a lot more than just Moore.
Junior running back Eric Ihde needs 53 yards on Friday to reach 1,000 on the season and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry.
Senior receiver Robby Sweers is a big play threat, averaging 26.3 yards on 31 receptions with eight touchdowns.
“They are full of offensive firepower,” West Branch senior safety Cooper Kabela said. “They have a lot of weapons, they thrown the ball down field and they are pretty successful at it.”
West Branch has been steady if not spectacular on defense this season but has played its best football the past few weeks.
The Bears are allowing 302 yards and 21 points per game after holding each of its last three opponents under 270 yards and 22 points.
“We have to keep the ball in front of us,” Lenoch said. “I’d rather give up a 5-yard hitch than a 40-yard pass over the top so we have to make sure they don’t get behind us.”
The best defense for West Branch on Friday may be Lenoch and the Bears’ offense chewing up yardage and clock and keeping the ball away from Moore and the Eagle offense.
Lenoch ranks seventh in the state with 1,501 yards on the season on 238 carries, third most in Iowa.
“No matter what kind of team they have ball control and field position are always important and that is definitely going to play a factor on Friday,” Pedersen said. “We have to control the football, we have to control the clock and we have to control the field position in order to beat this team.”