VAN HORNE, Iowa — The West Liberty football team gathered for a postgame message after a subdued celebration on the field in the aftermath of Friday’s quarterfinal.
But, as soon as students made their way onto the field, West Liberty players dashed their direction for a frenzied celebration.
The occasion, of course, was a convincing 42-14 win over Class 2A No. 4 Benton Community in the quarterfinals to clinch a trip to the UNI-Dome and the 2A semifinals for West Liberty.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” West Liberty coach Jason Iske said. “That’s why you do it, to see the kids that excited and get that rewarded for the time they put in.”
The current Comet senior class has been a major part of the program’s turnaround. The Dome has been their goal for the past four seasons, and those dreams finally became a reality thanks to a punishing 292 rushing yards on 45 carries.
“We’ve been working on it since freshman year,” senior Gabriel Melendez said. “It’s always been a dream, even though freshman year it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. Now we’re going. It’s a really big thing.”
Melendez, who entered Friday’s contest in Van Horne with 305 yards, totaled 122 yards on 16 carries. Senior quarterback Seth Feldman added 92 yards and one touchdown while fellow senior Coy Ruess had 48 rushing yards and two touchdowns in what Iske said was “definitely” the Comets' best rushing game of the season.
“It was the big boys up front,” Feldman said. “They kept giving me holes and giving our running backs holes.”
However, early on, it seemed Friday’s game would be a back-and-forth, high scoring affair.
After exchanging three-and-outs to start the game, West Liberty (8-3) marched down the field and scored on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Feldman to junior Talen Dengler.
Benton (9-2) responded by marching down the field and scoring on a 7-yard run from Matt Davis. The Comets fumbled the ensuing kick, and Davis capped off the drive with a one-yard score to put the Bobcats up 14-6.
That was the last time Benton found paydirt.
Will Esmoil rushed for an 8-yard touchdown to bring West Liberty within two, 14-12, with less than four minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The second half was all West Liberty, as it outgained Benton 253 to 71 over the final two quarters. It started with a defensive stop, followed by the Comets starting their first possession of the second half on their 1-yard line.
“I told them in the huddle we’re going to drive the ball down their throat, waste time, and we’re going to score,” Feldman said. “That’s what I told them, and that’s what we did.”
Indeed, the Comets put together a 10 play, 99-yard touchdown drive that ended with a touchdown pass from a scrambling Feldman to A.J. Lenz.
But, perhaps more importantly, Benton fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and West Liberty took over on the 36-yard line. Three plays later, Ruess scampered into the end zone for one of his two touchdown passes to give West Liberty a 28-14 lead with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
Down two scores with just a quarter remaining, Benton was forced to abandon its rushing game and become one dimensional. That made them easy pickings for a Comet defense that hasn’t allowed more than 14 points since Week 4.
“When we got them one dimensional I think that made it really easy for us,” Iske said. “They’re a great team. They have a really good offense that keeps you on your toes running and passing. When you make them one-dimensional it definitely makes it easier for us.”
The Comets scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to put the game well out of reach.
Now, West Liberty will embark on its first journey to the UNI-Dome since 1988 for a matchup with PCM, the No. 1 team in the state.
“We haven’t had all that much success, this high of success in our football program in a while,” Iske said. “For us as a community, to be able to get to the Dome and share that together, that’s going to be an awesome experience.”
West Liberty 42, Benton Community 14
WL – Talen Dengler 7 pass from Seth Feldman (rush failed), 4:16
Ben – Matt Davis 7 run (Zachary Brecht kick good), 11:54
Ben – Davis 1 run (Brecht kick good), 6:40
WL – Will Esmoil 8 run (rush failed), 3:35
WL – A.J. Lenz 20 pass from Feldman (Feldman run), 3:23
WL – Coy Ruess 2 run (Lake Newton run), 0:19
WL – Feldman 14 run (Will Esmoil kick), 6:29
WL – Ruess 11 run (Esmoil kick), 3:04
West Liberty – Gabriel Melendez 16-122, Seth Feldman 15-92, Coy Ruess 8-48, Lake Newton 3-17, Will Esmoil 3-13.
Benton – Matt Davis 14-60, Hunter Northup 3-27, Jack Shaw 4-3, Clayton Krousie 7-(-11)
West Liberty – Feldman 5-9-2, 99 yards
Benton – Krousie 17-29-0, 213 yards; Shaw 0-1, 0 yards
West Liberty – A.J. Lenz 2-50, Lake Newton1-43, Dengler 1-11, Will Esmoil 1-(-1)
Benton – Nathan Michels 8-102, Shaw 5-52, Turner Schroeder 3-34, Davis 1-22, Jacob Thompson 1-(-1)