CEDAR FALLS, Iowa Many Iowa prep football teams would have gladly trade places with West Branch Saturday.
Dike-New Hartford likely isn't one of them.
As many teams' seasons ended before reaching playoff contests at the UNI-Dome, the Wolverines extended its season for one more game with a 21-14 victory over the fourth-ranked Bears in the semifinals of the Iowa High School Athletic Association Class 1A state football playoffs. It is the Wolverines first finals berth since 2002.
Many Bears were emotional and visibly upset after the hard-fought lost in its third straight appearance in the state semifinals. There may be some solace in the fact that only three 1A teams advanced as far as the Bears and only two accomplished more.
"You've made it all the way to the Dome," Bears sophomore Cade Jones said. "This is the goal of every Iowa high school football team.
"We want to get to the finals, but there are a lot of people in the stands watching West Branch play. It's good to be here. It's been a ride for me and the team."
The ride and the Bears final drive hit a Dike-New Hartford roadblock after reaching the opponent's 27 in the waning seconds. When quarterback Brandon's pass in the end zone fell incomplete, the Wolverines took over with 10 seconds left and a title-game berth in hand.
"We had a great season," West Branch Coach Butch Pedersen said. "We have a lot of young kids returning for next year, but we were playing our hearts out for this game.
"I think the one thing that was pretty indicative of this team all year long was they've never quit. You could see that in that last drive."
The Bears (11-1) played catch-up for most of the game. After a scoreless first, Dike-New Hartford (11-2) took advantage of good field position, driving 60 yards on 12 plays. Josh Rekers had time and hit Royce Pool for a 12-yard TD for a 7-0 lead. It was the first of two Rekers-to-Pool scoring strikes.
"He's been a very efficient quarterback for us all year long," Wolverines Coach Don Betts said of Rekers. "He does a nice job out there managing the game for us and reads defenses really well. He knows what his reads are, gets his reads and delivers the football."
West Branch answered quickly. On their next offensive play from scrimmage, Jones took the pitch from Young and bolted down the field making a cut and breaking a tackle at the 10-yard line to finish a 67-yard TD run.
"It's just great blocking. Just getting downfield blocks," said Jones, who had 162 of the Bears' 243 rushing yards. "You see the hole, if it's there, you have to take it. It was there and a couple cuts and we got the touchdown."
It tied the game a 7-7, which led to halftime. Jones also had a 61-yard touchdown run, diving in from the 2 to tie it at 14-14 with a little less than seven minutes left.
"Cade is a phenomenal athlete," Pedersen said. "He's only going to get better. He's done a great job for us this year as have all of our running backs.
"I think that's one of the reasons we're up here, because we've been able to wear people down with our backs. We tried to do that again today and fell just a little bit short."
Turnovers hampered West Branch in the second half. The Bears lost three fumbles after the break, including a poor pitch recovered by the Wolverines at the Bears 28 to open the third. Two other drives were halted by fumbles in the second half. The Bears also turned the ball over on downs twice in the first half.
"We had too many fumbles today. We had too many dropped passes," Pedersen said. "We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a few times, but the heart was still there."
The first second-half turnover resulted in a 28-yard TD from Rekers to Pool for a 14-7 lead.
"We thought we could throw the ball," Betts said. "We thought if we spread them out we could move the ball, running the ball and throwing the ball. We were able to do that at times."
West branch's defense was stout, holding a strong running offense well below its average and running back Eric Joblinske, who entered with more than 1,800 yards, to just 80. The Wolverines followed Jones' last TD run with a 65-yard drive capped by Joblinske runs of 17 and 12 yards. The latter found the end zone and the lead for good.
"We were trying to run inside but they were trying to fill the inside so I just bounced outside trying to use my speed to get out there," Joblinske said.
Pedersen wasn't focused on the negative.
"There's a lot of other really good things that happened out there today," Pedersen said. "This team is a positive team and to me a very special team."
A van from a Dike-New Hartford fan had "Overcome the...Undefeated" in its rear windows. The Wolverines beat their third straight undefeated, avenging a regular-season loss to No. 3 Aplington-Parkersburg (35-12) and No. 5 Woodward-Granger (34-27) the last two games. It is a product of team chemistry and senior leadership, according to Betts.
"We've had a good team all year and our kids have just kept getting better," he said. "The big thing is they believe. They really believe in the fact that they can win games. They can win close games,"
The Wolverines face No. 8 West Lyon (11-2) in the championship game at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20. The Wildcats upset top-ranked Council Bluffs St. Albert, 35-7, in the other semifinal Saturday.