ANKENY - A win at top-ranked Ankeny is all that stands between the Fort Dodge softball team and a seventh trip to the state tournament in the last decade.
Improbable? Yes. But impossible?
''Anything can happen this time of year,'' Dodger head coach Andi Adams said. ''That's the beauty of softball. This is an opportunity that doesn't come along very often. Instead of being intimidated, we have no choice but to be excited. It's what the postseason is all about.''
Fort Dodge (20-20 overall) visits the defending state runner-up Hawkettes (35-6) this evening in a Class 5A regional final. Start time is set for 7 p.m.
As would be the case with nearly every other program in Iowa given the circumstances, the Dodgers are heavy underdogs on Tuesday. That doesn't bother Adams' squad one bit.
''We've done our best to simulate and amplify pressure situations in practice, and we've seen (all-state pitcher Shayla) Starkenberg once this year (a 2-0 loss at the Fort Dodge Invitational),'' Adams said. ''All we can do is prepare as much as possible physically and mentally and then try to execute to the best of our ability.
''We're in a one-and-done situation with arguably the best team in the entire state. If you're a competitor and a fighter, that's the kind of opportunity you live for.''
Ankeny is buyoed by Starkenberg and fellow senior Aly Cappaert - both Div. I recruits. Starkenberg, who is unbeaten this season at 27-0, will play collegiately for the University of Iowa. Cappaert, an all-state first baseman, is headed to Iowa State University.
''You rarely see one Div. I player on an opponent's roster, let alone two,'' Adams said. ''They're the real deal, and they're on a mission after losing (in the state championship game) to Des Moines East.
''There's nothing I can say about Ankeny that hasn't already been said. We just have to try and stay loose and not get caught up in the moment. It's as much about staying calm and confident mentally as anything we do on the field.''
Cappaert is batting .557 with 11 home runs, 44 RBI, 16 doubles and 38 runs scored. Eighth-grader Kendyl Lindaman (.393 average, 9 homers, 33 RBI) and junior Ashley Chambers (.382, 8, 39) are also power threats for the Hawkettes, while juniors Emily Dorphinghaus (.405, 40 runs, five triples) and Cathlin Bingham (.393, 31 runs) are the tablesetters.
Starkenberg sports a 0.68 earned run average. Opponents are batting .153 against her.
FDSH freshman Mallory Kilian (13-8, 1.71 ERA) will oppose Starkenberg in the pitcher's circle. As an eighth-grader last summer, Kilian helped lead the Dodgers past No. 11 Waukee and eighth-ranked Sioux City East, clinching the program's sixth state tournament trip since 2002.
Senior first baseman Emily Grell (.439 average, 39 RBI) and sophomore Lexi Astor (.433, 28 stolen bases) are Fort Dodge's top statistical producers at the plate.
The winner advances to the first-ever 5A quarterfinals at Rogers Park next week. A fifth class - which features the state's biggest 40 schools - was added to athletic competition on the girls' side beginning this summer.