West High celebrates its playoff win over Bettendorf. Jeff Yoder/For Your Prep Sports. Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – Everyone loves a good Cinderella story.
Entering the playoffs as an unranked district runner-up and without a title game appearance in the last decade and a half West High fit the underdog profile.
With three consecutive postseason wins over ranked teams West High quickly became the surprise of the 4A playoffs.
There’s only one problem with the narrative of West High as the improbable underdog. The Trojans never felt like they didn’t belong with the best in the state.
“We always believed that we are Dome caliber team,” West High coach Garrett Hartwig said. “We believed that from when we started lifting weights last November until we started summer workouts and from when we kicked off against Southeast Polk until we waited on the field here to find out the results of the Kennedy and Prairie game. We always believed we were a playoff team and we belonged in the Dome with anyone else.”
On Friday evening that is exactly where West High will be.
In its first semifinal appearance since 2002 West High (10-2) thumped Cedar Rapids Washington 35-7 to return to the state title game for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back titles in 1999.
Most people will look at Friday’s 7:06 p.m. title game and see West High (10-2) as the David to three-time defending West Des Moines Dowling’s Goliath.
That’s fine with Hartwig and West High who never questioned if they could compete with the state’s elite.
“This means that we are right where we want to be, right where we thought we would be,” senior offensive tackle Alex Kleinow said of Friday’s title game. “We just have to finish this game.”
Call it coach speak if you like but those that know Hartwig knows he meant it when he said his team was capable of playing in the 4A title game.
Hartwig believed it when he took over the program and he still believed it after the Trojans struggled to a 4-7 record a year ago.
That’s not to say that nothing changed after the first losing season for West High since a 4-6 season in 2010.
“You always have to question something after a season like that,” West High senior Blake Ealy said of last year. “We knew we had it, it was just slipping up in games we just needed to focus on what we needed to do to get the team to this level.”
Hartwig looked at everything in the program. He tweaked a few things in the offseason.
He got more involved in the condition program.
Workouts got harder, conditioning sessions longer but Hartwig’s belief West High belonged among the best teams in the state didn’t change.
“We expected to be here,” Hartwig said. “One of our coaches put it well. I asked our team at a team dinner a couple of weeks ago what does it mean to go to the Dome and coach (Kyle) Posey answered himself and he said it means we are on schedule.”
West High looked like one of the best teams in the state during a 3-0 start to the season but back-to-back losses to City High and Cedar Rapids Prairie midway through the season dropped the Trojans out of the rankings.
Did some doubt creep into the mind of the Trojans during that two-game losing skid?
Perhaps. But if it was there it didn’t last long.
Hartwig saw the season change for good late in a win over Cedar Rapids Kennedy.
Leading 17-10 with under four minutes to play backup quarterback Ethan Postler tossed a 64-yard touchdown pass to Oliver Martin that put an exclamation point on a 24-10 win.
“Everyone in the stadium expected us to try to run the clock out and we looked at the guys in the huddle and (Coach Andrew) Durham and I kind of said ‘do we take a shot?’ and we didn’t even second guess it,” Hartwig said. “It was a great pass from Ethan, great catch by Oliver, great blocking up front and touchdown and right then and there I knew these boys they had the team. They had the confidence. From that point on these guys have expected to win.”
In the five games after the Kennedy win West High has outscored opponents 211 to 66 while outgaining foes by an average of 386 to 203.
West High has scored 35 points or more in four of its last five games including each of its last two and has allowed more than 253 yards of offense once during that five-game span.
“I would agree with coach on that play against Kennedy,” West High quarterback Evan Flitz said. “When Ethan threw that pass and Oliver ran it in there was kind of a change on the sideline.”
For the first time during its playoff run West High admits it is an underdog against three-time defending 4A champion Dowling.
That doesn’t mean they don’t believe they belong.
“We are here and we are playing that 13, 14th game and we earned that,” Ealy said. “We just have to focus on what they are doing and I think we can do pretty well.”