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COMMENTARY

High school football commentary: West Salem's mental toughness an asset

From the COLLECTION: Local sports highlights from Wednesday series

WEST SALEM — The first possession of Friday night’s Coulee Conference football game between West Salem High School and Altoona went nowhere.

The Railroaders picked up 6 yards on their first three plays but were forced to punt after failing on third-and-6 from its own 39-yard line.

Luke Noel burst through the line on the snap and got a hand on the ball as it left the punter’s foot, and it didn’t even reach midfield.

It was a big play right off the bat and one that would typically fire up every last player on the team — especially the one who made it — but that didn’t happen. There were a few hand slaps, but no outward celebration.

Noel and his teammates walked off the field and got ready for their first possession, which ended with his 2-yard touchdown run that started a 55-12 rout for the Panthers. That play led to the hoots and hollers that generally accompany such successes.

That sequence repeated itself when Altoona’s Hunter Hibbard returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown that tied the game. Again, no hint of emotion to be found. Just a desire to get the offense back on the field.

“Let’s go put one in there,” West Salem lineman Kellen Wright said to his teammates as he looked at the field.

It was more of a statement than a command.

Coaches love to have players with the right perspective, and understanding how to use that perspective is one thing. Executing it is another, but the Panthers showed Friday night the ability to do that.

“We talk a lot about playing the game with excitement and emotion,” West Salem coach Justin Jehn said. “But we also talk about being confident, not cocky, and acting like you’ve been there before.

“We have guys who have been around the block, and those are our leaders, and they set the tone for our team.”

That tone allowed the Panthers (4-1, 3-0) to play loose while picking up their fourth straight victory.

Quarterback Brett McConkey threw passes with confidence — with a season-high 261 yards — and ran with power. Noel ran the same way and scored three touchdowns to run his season total to 12. Receiver Brennan Kennedy destroyed Altoona’s defense just about every opportunity he had and averaged nearly 30 yards on five catches.

Senior Chris Calico provided fireworks with a kickoff return for a touchdown, too. With a roster this talented, he said big plays will happen and can nullify anything an opponent does.

“We don’t let small things affect us,” said Calico, who also rushed for a touchdown and set up another with a 14-yard run in the second quarter. “No matter what happens, we’re going to come back.

“We try to play the next play and let (negative plays) stay in the past.”

Kennedy’s performance — he also had one of West Salem’s two interceptions — seemed to be what really sparked the Panthers. He won the ball from a defender when he slipped behind the defense and caught a 32-yard pass from McConkey and turned it into a 67-yard touchdown to give West Salem a 26-6 lead in the second quarter.

“I had to get that ball because it was a nice throw,” Kennedy said. “Everything worked right on that play.”

He also had a 44-yard catch on the next drive and a 19-yarder that nearly reached the end zone on the final play of the first half.

“It’s crazy,” Calico said of watching Kennedy play his position. “I’ll be on the other side, and I see BK go up and make this catch, and he’s gone.

“Once he’s running, there’s no catching him. It’s so much fun to watch.”

Kennedy has been a big play waiting to happen all season. He has caught just 12 passes, but they’ve covered 285 yards and resulted in four touchdowns. Kennedy has also recovered a fumble and picked off two passes, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

The ability to make those kinds of plays helps set up the mental toughness that was on display after the blocked punt and returned kickoff very early in the game. It’s the confidence that Jehn mentioned.

Jehn would like to see that continue Friday night in a game at G-E-T. The Panthers and Red Hawks had a great rivalry when in the Coulee Conference together and continued it in a nonconference format when West Salem joined the MVC in 2014.

Friday’s game in Galesville will be the first conference game the teams have played against each other since 2013, and it includes two teams heading in the right direction.

Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at todd.sommerfeldt@lee.net or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX

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