DES MOINES - The Fort Dodge baseball team's mantra all year has been "Something to Prove."
Here (tonight), the Dodgers get one last chance to prove it.
Fort Dodge advanced to the Class 4A state championship game for the third time in school history with a thrilling 4-2 win over Cedar Rapids Kennedy on a perfect night for baseball Friday at Principal Park. It's the first time the Dodgers have reached the final since 1989 after coming tantalizingly close the past few seasons.
Standing in the Dodgers' way will be top-ranked Ankeny and its sterling 42-2 record. The Hawks advanced with an 8-4 win over West Des Moines Valley in last night's first semifinal game.
First pitch is scheduled for 8 p.m., the last of four title games contested here.
"This feels good, but we'll celebrate for about 12 hours then get back to work," said Dodger coach Matt Elsbecker, who will coach in his first state title game. "This has been one of our goals since the beginning of the season. When I came here (to coach at Fort Dodge) the goal was to get to the state tournament and be the best. Every coach thinks they can do it. You don't get into the sport if you don't think you can."
Fort Dodge 4,
Cedar Rapids Kennedy 2
Kennedy 000 000 2 2 6 1
Fort Dodge 000 400 x 4 8 0
Adam Lloyd (L, 9-2; 3.1 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 1 K), Nick Appleget (2.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 1 K) and Jimmy Lizarraga. JC Hatcher (W, 6-0, 6.1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 1K), Luke Vandermaten (S 2, 0.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K) and Devon Harms. WP- Lloyd. LOB- Kennedy 6, Fort Dodge 7. 2B- Kennedy: Hayden. FD: Edwards. Sac- Kennedy: Josh Jahalas, Alex Hayden. FD: Gormally, Hatcher. CS- Kennedy: Derek Jacobous. DP- Kennedy, Fort Dodge.
Fort Dodge, now 36-7, won the game by doing the little things on both offense and defense. The Dodgers bunted the ball three times in the fourth inning, all of which helped lead to all four of their runs.
They won the game because Elsbecker teaches his players to be aware on defense, and a bang-bang defensive play ended the game after Kennedy had cut the lead in half in the seventh inning.
Fort Dodge beat Kennedy at state for the second straight year and for the fourth time over the past two years. Kennedy has just 16 losses over the last two years, one-fourth of them coming at the hands of the Dodgers.
"That was just two good teams," said Elsbecker. "We could play them for the next two or three years and they could beat us. It just worked in the Dodgers' favor (tonight)."
Ironically, the two teams the Dodgers have beaten in this year's state tournament have a role in Dodger championship game history. Fort Dodge beat Cedar Rapids Kennedy to win the 1969 state title and lost in the 1989 championship to Dowling.
Fort Dodge beat the Maroons, 5-4, in a thrilling quarterfinal game this year.
Sophomore JC Hatcher got the win on the mound for Fort Dodge. Hatcher (6-0) allowed Kennedy to put a base runner on in every frame, but he kept Kennedy off the scoreboard until the seventh. The Cougars left runners on third base in the first two innings and had two base running blunders prove costly.
Fort Dodge led 4-0 in the seventh, but the Cougars quickly loaded the bases and chased Hatcher, who gave way to Luke Vandermaten.
But in a flash, Kennedy got two runs and the game ended all on the same play.
Cody Bell ripped a single to left to score two Kennedy runs, but when the throw from the outfield was high into the infield, Josh Jahlas tried to get from second to third. Dodger catcher Devon Harms was backing up the play and he fielded the ball and threw a strike to Tommy Halligan at third to get Jahlas and that was that.
"I wanted to finish, but I lost some control and Luke did a great job ending it for me," said Hatcher. "As long as we win the game, I don't care what happens."
Hatcher let the lead-off runner reach base in every inning, but always wiggled out of the jam. He got some help from Kennedy in the fourth when Devon Jacobus was called out for leaving the base early after advancing from second to third on a fly out. Harms also helped Hatcher out in the fifth when he threw a runner out trying to steal second.
"I just told myself to settle down and throw strikes," Hatcher added. "They put the ball in play, but my defense did a lot of work for me."
Fort Dodge left a pair of runners on base in the first and third frames, but finally broke through in the fourth, thanks to perfecting "small ball" hitting.
Tyler Vaughn singled to start the frame off, then Harms reached on a perfect bunt between the pitcher and first base. Hatcher laid down another bunt, but Kennedy tried to get Vaughn at third and he beat the throw to load the bases.
Freshman Austin Halligan then stroked a single to right to make it 2-0.
Cole Jarrard scooted home on a wild pitch to make it 3-0.
Will Gormally then executed another bunt, moving Halligan to third before he scored on an RBI single from Vandermaten.
Kennedy actually turned a double play to end the frame, but the damage had already been done. In fact, the Dodgers didn't get another hit after that.
"Coach Elsbecker said to just take a deep breath and enjoy the moment," said Halligan, the Dodgers' No. 9 hitter. "I am nervous before every game, but I usually get the butterflies out and get ready to go."
Hatcher scattered five hits in his 6 1/3 innings of work. He allowed four walks and fanned two batters. Vandermaten recorded his second save of the season.
Vandermaten also went 2-for-4 at the plate while Tommy Halligan was 2-for-3. Fort Dodge out-hit the Cougars, 8-6. The Dodgers stranded seven runners to Kennedy's six.
Ankeny will come into tonight's title game with a 27-game winning streak. The Hawks' losses were 9-7 to Muscatine and 5-2 to Dowling.
The Hawks' semifinal win ended a lot like the Dodgers. Valley scored twice in the seventh to make it 8-4, but the Tigers had a runner thrown out at third to end the game.
Fort Dodge had reached the semifinals three times previously under Elsbecker, but couldn't get over the hump. The Dodgers lost to Mason City last year after dropping semifinal games to Sioux City North in 2009 and Davenport Central in 2007.
Fort Dodge ended Kennedy's season in last year's state opener, 2-1. The Cougars were defending state champs after winning it all in 2010.
The Dodgers also swept Kennedy in a regular-season twinbill last year.
Elsbecker wasn't sure who he would pitch tonight. Gormally and Vaughn both pitched in the quarterfinals, so their innings could be limited.
Again last night the Dodger crowd well out-numbered Kennedy's. The announced attendance was 3,323.