DES MOINES - After flying under the radar early in the season, the Fort Dodge baseball team quickly made sure they weren't going to sneak up on anyone in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
A sometimes overlooked and underappreciated Dodger squad will take another trip to Des Moines for the state tournament here tonight when Fort Dodge (34-7 overall) takes on West Des Moines Dowling (32-10) at 8 p.m. inside Principal Park.
Making its third state appearance in the past four years and fifth overall since 2005, third-seeded and fourth-ranked Fort Dodge takes on the defending state champion Maroons in a rematch of a 2009 quarterfinal matchup.
Members of the 2012 state-qualifying Fort Dodge baseball team are, front row (left to right):?Drew Hansen, Kole Kampen, Austin Halligan, Devraj Thakor, bat boy Elijah Elsbecker, Nathan Matthes, Cory Alexander, Spencer Barber and Cainen Hiracheta. Middle:?Sam Cook, Johnny Bice, Thomas Hartley, Nate Sunken, Andrew Stover, Tommy Halligan, Isaac Lehman, Devon Harms, Eric Pulls and Gunnar Conrad. Back:?assistant Jordan Miller, assistant Blake Utley, J.C. Hatcher, Will Gormally, Parker Van Zyl, Tyler Vaughn, Sam Edwards, Keegan Gormally, Luke Vandermaten, Cole Jarrard, assistant Jamie O’Meara, head coach Matt Elsbecker.
"We have a very intelligent group (FDSH's cumulative grade point average was announced at 3.45 on Tuesday night), and our focus has been very good," said Elsbecker, who owns a 259-190 record in his 11 years at the helm and has guided the red and black to 25 wins or more in eight straight years. "We've taken advantage of a lot of opportunities. Our players just wanted to prove themselves, which is what they've done so far.
"In the preseason, we were kind of wondering what kind of team we'd have after losing (seven senior starters from last summer's semifinal lineup). We knew we'd have some talent and guys that loved to play baseball, but we didn't know how that would translate. Our whole attitude and results are now in the stage we've been planning for all year. It's time to make hay or go home."
Winners of 15 of their last 18 games, the CIML Iowa Conference champion Dodgers - who reached 4A's final four level in 2007 and 2009 - have outscored their foes this year by a combined margin of 285-124, including postseason triumphs over Sioux City West (6-0) and Sioux City East (7-2). Despite being unranked in the preseason, Fort Dodge still managed to tie the program record for most wins in a year, equalling the total of the 1989 club that placed second at state.
AN ELITE EIGHT YEARS
The Fort Dodge baseball team is 227-108 (.678 win percentage) under Matt Elsbecker with five state tournament appearances since 2005. This year's squad has tied a school record for wins in a single season:
Year W-L Postseason
2005 25-17 State quarterfinals
2006 26-15 Substate semifinals
2007 25-18 State semifinals
2008 27-13 Substate finals
2009 29-13 State semifinals
2010 31-12 Substate finals
2011 30-13 State semifinals
2012 34-7 State tournament
Totals 227-108 5 state tournaments
MOST SINGLE-SEASON WINS
BEST REGULAR SEASONS
1. 1983: 21-2 (.913)
2. 1990: 27-3 (.900)
3. 1975: 24-3 (.889)
4. 2012: *32-7 (.821)
4. 1977: 18-4 (.818)
5. 1982: 21-5 (.808)
6. 1989: 29-8 (.784)
7. 1981: 20-7 (.741)
8. 2010: 29-11 (.725)
9. 2008: 25-11 (.694)
10. 2011: 26-12 (.684)
(tie) 2009: 26-12 (.684)
12. 1991: 27-13 (.675)
13. 2006: 25-14 (.641)
*School record for regular season wins
Either junior Tyler Vaughn (9-0; 59 2/3 IP, 62 H, 52 K, 2.11 ERA) or sophomore JC Hatcher (5-0; 40 IP, 25 H, 24 K, 2.28 ERA) will receive the starting nod on the mound for FDSH tonight. The Dodger pitching staff sports a 2.58 team ERA, and has registered eight shutouts on the season.
Top offensive threats for Fort Dodge are senior Will Gormally (.440 BA, 59 H, 40 R, 32 RBI), senior Luke Vandermaten (.415 BA, 56 H, 23 R, 20 RBI) and junior Devon Harms (.396 BA, 40 H, 21 RBI, 17 R). The Dodgers lead all of 4A in team batting average (.372) this season and were fourth in total hits (399). They were also first in sacrifices executed.
"We want to start fast and finish strong," Elsbecker said. "Go down (to Des Moines) and act like you belong, play hard and respect your opponents. If you don't do those things, you will go home early."
Dowling is headed back to state for a 16th time in school history. The 2011 gold medalist Maroons, who finished second in the CIML Central Conference at 13-7, have reeled off 10 consecutive victories and eliminated Des Moines Hoover (9-0) and Johnston (6-5) en route to state.
In a previous meeting this season back on June 5, Fort Dodge knocked off then-No. 4 Dowling by a 4-2 count at Ed McNeil Field.
"I expect a very strong pitching staff and a very well-coached team," said Elsbecker of the Maroons. "(Head coach) Tim O'Neill is in his 10th year (at Dowling). They like to move runners, and hit well with runners in scoring position.
"We're not going into this game thinking about how we already beat them once. We have to show intensity, but also stay loose and play good baseball to get to the semifinals."
Senior Andrew Clemen (9-0; 40 1/3 IP, 25 H, 30 K, 0.87 ERA), junior Jake Reinhardt (4-2; 43 1/3 IP, 29 H, 43 K, 1.29 ERA), senior Bobby LeWarne (6-2; 56 IP, 42 H, 55 K, 1.63 ERA) and senior Joe Erickson (3-3; 46 1/3 IP, 38 H, 44 K, 1.66 ERA) are each options to take the hill for the Maroons, whose pitching staff boasted the lowest ERA (1.37) and lowest opponents' batting average (.183) in 4A this season.
Headlining the Dowling attack at the plate are senior Zach Coppola (.421 BA, 53 H, 35 R, 22 RBI, 19 SB), senior Jacob Stacy (.367 BA, 40 H, 26 R, 25 RBI) and junior Anthony Denkinger (.356 BA, 42 H, 27 RBI, 17 2B). The Maroons, who are batting .304 as a squad, have remarkably been successful on 64 out of 65 stolen base attempts (98.5 percent).
Clemen, Erickson and Coppola have all signed to play at the Div. I level for South Dakota State, while LeWarne will continue his career for Atlantic 10 Conference program George Washington.
Unwavering community support has once again been a key ingredient in Fort Dodge's recent fortunes on the diamond.
"Since we've been going down (to state), I'm always amazed every year by how we have the most fans in the stands," Elsbecker said. "That's what makes (Principal Park) an exciting and electric atmosphere.
"We appreciate everybody's support and will do our best to make our community proud."
The winner between the Dodgers and Maroons moves on to battle either No. 2 seed and second-ranked Cedar Rapids Kennedy (32-6) or No. 7 seed and ninth-ranked Linn-Mar (29-11) in the 4A semifinals Friday at 8 p.m.