The heightened expectations surrounding the Fort Dodge boys basketball team will be immediately palpable here tonight when the Dodgers open their 2012-13 campaign against defending North Central Conference champion Webster City.
Varsity tip is set for 7:45 p.m. inside the FDSH gym.
Head coach Tom Daniel is demanding more from his program than the five-win season of a year ago, and he knows it has to start from jump against a Lynx squad that defeated the Dodgers for the first time in 20 years last winter.
''Absolutely this is an important game, without question,'' Daniel said. ''Given the fact that Webster City is a local rival, and it's our opener on our home court, I'd say it's very critical we start on the right foot.
''They have bragging rights over us right now. That just adds to the significance. We're by no means a finished product and we still have a lot of work to do, but with as much experience as we have coming back, we want to get headed in the right direction and it has to start (tonight).''
Fort Dodge has over 70 percent of its scoring back in the lineup this year, including regulars JC Hatcher, Tyler Vaughn and Andrew Stover. Zach Martinson, a fourth starter returning from a season ago, is not available until Dec. 11.
Dodger Boys (0-0)
G JC Hatcher, 6-1, jr.
G Andrew Stover, 5-10, jr.
G Tyler Vaughn, 6-4, sr.
F Blake Wilder, 6-3, jr.
F Jake Porter, 6-3, jr. or
Krunal Thakor, 5-10, jr.
Webster City (0-0)
G: Ben Mossman, 6-0, jr.
G: Nick Olmstead, 5-11, sr.
G: Nathan Myers, 6-0, so.
F: Austin Myers, 6-0, sr.
C: Boone Meyers, 6-5, sr.
Hatcher, a junior guard, scored 285 points last year - the third most in program history for a 10th-grader. Vaughn, a senior, also averaged in double figures at 10.2 points per game.
Stover, also a junior, is expected to be joined by junior Blake Wilder and either junior Jake Porter or junior Krunal Thakor in this evening's starting lineup.
''You never feel completely prepared for your first game, but we're still excited to get going,'' Daniel said. ''We have a number of players back, but we're doing a lot of new things and changing the way we approach practices and games. Even during the adjustment period, though, the one controllable factor is our effort and intensity. I expect that to be at a high level from the opening tip on, and will be disappointed if I see otherwise.''
Head coach Marty McKinney's Lynx were a Top-10 team in Class 3A last winter, posting a perfect NCC record and going 20-3 overall. Webster City's top four scorers have graduated, however, leaving just burly 6-foot-5 post player Boone Meyers (7.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks) back in the fray.
Returning letterwinners Ben Mossman, a junior, and seniors Austin Myers and Nick Olmstead are slated to flank Meyers in the starting lineup, along with sophomore shooting guard Nathan Meyers.
''We don't have much varsity experience, but we have good kids to work with,'' McKinney said. ''We're having to change our approach and adjust to the roster we have to replace (all-conference honorees Jonny Davis, Andrew May, Bryan Swon and Sam Mossman). However, I think our shooting can be a strength and I see a deeper rotation developing to the point where we can play nine or 10 kids.
''We've played Fort Dodge every year since I've been here, and (the date) always seems to bounce around our schedule. We lobbied hard to get this first game locked up, because it's a great chance to face a quality non-conference opponent right off the bat. This is a stiff challenge without a doubt, but (facing the Dodgers) always is regardless. We'll find out where we're at in a hurry, because I know they have a lot of players returning.''
Fort Dodge and Webster City squared off every season on the hardwood from 1952 through 1984. This is the 64th all-time meeting between the programs, and the ninth in a row since the rivalry was renewed in following a seven-year hiatus 2004-05.
Fort Dodge heads to Des Moines North on Tuesday before an open date on Friday. The Polar Bears were 7-15 a year ago and welcome back three of their leading scorers in juniors Teyontae Jenkins (15.7), Terrance Busch (9.5) and Samuel Williams Jr. (8.9).
''North is always a hard opponent to prepare for,'' Daniel said. ''You can't simulate what they do in practice. They always have tremendous athleticism and they really like to push the tempo.
''Coming off a five-win season, we're not in a position to take anyone lightly or anything for granted. We need to work very hard and develop good habits right away if we want to beat Webster City or North.''