ANKENY - Fort Dodge head coach Matt Miller isn't a big believer in conventional wisdom this time of year.
The Dodgers haven't fared well as a favorite in the Class 4A substate round over the past two seasons, so Miller is hoping the heavy underdog label will better suit his squad on Wednesday against second-seeded and fifth-ranked Ankeny.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Miller has witnessed first-hand what one-and-done football can do to a program that otherwise enjoyed steady success throughout the course of a campaign. Fort Dodge (3-6 overall) may be a longshot against the Hawks (8-1) here tonight, but the Dodgers aren't making the trip just to fulfill their obligation.
''We're not going down just for the free ham salad sandwich after the game,'' said Miller, who has FDSH in the substate bracket for the fourth consecutive year. ''Our kids are excited and looking forward to the opportunity. All I can ask is their best effort and we'll see what happens.
''Ankeny is an outstanding team with a lot of athleticism and plenty of firepower, so we'll have our hands full. But a 10th game is better than having to clean out your locker (after Week 9).''
The 19th meeting all-time between the old CIML National Conference rivals pits the Hawks, who shared the CIML Central title with No. 3 Southeast Polk and seventh-rated West Des Moines Dowling, against the hobbled Dodgers. Fort Dodge has dropped consecutive contests to Waukee (6-3), Marshalltown (7-2) and top-ranked West Des Moines Valley (9-0), losing a handful of starters to injury in the process.
Miller thinks starting tailback, linebacker and punter Dillon Christensen will try to return this evening. Standout receiver Isaac Lehman (broken collarbone) is out, however. Lehman closes his senior year with a school-record 48 catches for 826 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Lineman Jordan Narber (ankle) is still out. Linebacker Drake Baade (concussion) is also sidelined. Defensive back Will Gormally, linebacker Jalen Mosley and fullback Tommy Halligan are probable.
''We're beat up, but still fighting,'' Miller said. ''We actually had what I considered to be our best practice of the season on (Monday). There's really no pressure on us because as a 15 seed, we're not supposed to advance.
''That was the case last year also though, when a 15 beat a 2 (Urbandale over Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln). And of course, we were a (No. 3 seed in 2010) and lost (to Waukee) right away. Upsets can and will happen.''
Senior quarterback Sam Edwards is just seven yards shy of the second 2,000-yard passing campaign in FDSH history (Randy Reiners with 2,235 in 1994). Lehman, Halligan (32 catches, 358 yards) and Jaydan Bruhl-Lara (23-294) have been Edwards' main targets.
The Dodgers have rushed for only 486 cumulative yards, with junior Austin Anderson (100 carries, 337 yards) and Christensen (53-291) leading the way.
The Hawks are paced by dual-threat quarterback Joel Lanning (1,040 passing yards, 424 rushing) and tailback Trevor Egli (579 yards rushing, 5 touchdowns). Lanning, a two-year starter as just a junior, ''reminds me a lot of (Waukee's) Cole Pederson,'' Miller said.
''He's very dangerous if you let him get to the outside or in open space,'' Miller added. ''He and Egli are both very talented, and their top receiver (sophomore Marshall Clark) is a deep threat.''
Ankeny is one of the more tradition-rich programs in all of 4A. The Hawks have reached at least the quarterfinal round in each of the last 11 seasons, including seven trips to the semifinals and a state championship game appearance in 2007.
Legendary head coach Jerry Pezzetti has won 354 career games, which ranks third among active coaches in Iowa. Pezzetti, who is in his 50th season, captured a state championship with Ankeny in 1997.
The Dodgers own just two playoff victories all-time - in 1978 and 1994. They lost in the substate round to Dowling in 2008, Valley in '09 and the Warriors last fall.
Fort Dodge has defeated Ankeny just three times ever, and the Dodgers have dropped 13 straight to the Hawks since 1988. The programs met annually in all but one season from 1984 to '99.
Tonight's winner advances to face either Waukee or Sioux City East (4-5) on Monday.
Contact Eric Pratt at (515) 573-2141, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org