The Fort Dodge baseball program's long-standing goal of winning another state championship will now be in Blake Utley's hands.
Utley was named Matt Elsbecker's successor at Monday's FDCSD board meeting, as the former Dodger player and assistant takes the reins of the defending Class 4A state runner-up after a nine-year stint as Elsbecker's right-hand man.
''I told Matt during the interview process that there's one more ultimate step, and I'm excited to take on the challenge of keeping up the tradition Dodger baseball has able to establish and maintain,'' said Utley, a graduate of FDSH and the University of Northern Iowa. ''This is an absolutely huge opportunity for me, and I appreciate the vote of confidence from Matt, (outgoing athletic and activities director) Tom (Kinseth) and the school board.
''Matt taught me to appreciate the value of doing the little things right and staying true to the fundamentals of the game. That won't change on my watch. We will continue to work hard and won't cut corners, and we'll expect the most out of our kids. It's a formula that has worked for us.''
Utley replaces Elsbecker, who stepped down in late-February to become FDSH's next athletic and activities director. Elsbecker's 11-year tenure included two conference championships, four appearances in the state semifinals and a championship game berth last summer. The Dodgers were a combined 36-125 overall in the four years prior to his arrival.
''Matt built this basically from scratch,'' said Utley, a physical education teacher at Senior High. ''Before Matt came here, teams were basically already ahead 2-0 before the game even started. Now I feel like it's the other way around. We have a mental advantage and it's back to the way Dodger baseball used to be.
''This is a traditionally-strong baseball community. Both our program and St. Edmond's have done well recently, which is exciting to see and exciting to be a part of - that resurgence.''
Elsbecker said Utley is ''more than ready'' to be a head coach.
''His time is now,'' said Elsbecker, who will become the new AAD on July 1. ''Blake is a highly-competitive and a very detail-oriented person. He will push his kids to do the best that they can; the students see his passion and leadership and they want to follow. His energy is contagious.
''I see a very bright future ahead. The program is in good hands.''
''Blake is so heavily involved with the baseball players in the offseason, from workouts and weight training through everything else,'' Kinseth said. ''It's a good fit. A natural fit. I'm sure the current players feel both comfortable and relieved that Blake will be in charge.
''He's an ex-Dodger player who takes tremendous pride in this school and community. The continuity and loyalty that Matt has enjoyed with Blake and his other assistants through the years is a rare commodity these days. We're very fortunate to have that with our baseball program.''
Five starters and seven seniors are slated return to the FDSH lineup this summer for Utley, including first team all-state pitcher Tyler Vaughn. Fellow seniors Devon Harms and Tommy Halligan are also coming back, along with junior JC Hatcher and sophomore Austin Halligan.
The Dodgers were 36-8 overall and 17-3 in the CIML Iowa Conference a year ago.
''The idea is to always play your best baseball in July - and to still be on the field Aug. 3 (the 4A championship date),'' Utley said. ''Every year is a new cycle and a different look. It takes time to develop, but I know we have seven hungry seniors ready to lead, which is a good start. They got a taste (in 2012) and they want more.''