For the third consecutive season and the fourth time in the last five summers, Fort Dodge and St. Edmond represent a ranked matchup on the baseball field when the two elite programs meet tonight at Rogers Park.
Despite fielding eight new starters and completely revamping its starting pitching rotation, the fourth-rated (Class 4A) Dodgers haven't skipped a beat under 11th-year head coach Matt Elsbecker. Fort Dodge entered Thursday's showdown at No. 6 Waukee as the CIML Iowa Conference frontrunner with a 22-4 overall record, including a 19-2 mark in June.
Elsbecker is now 110 games over the break-even mark in the last eight-plus seasons (215-105 overall record) after being 50 games under (32-82) in his first three campaigns. Fort Dodge has made four state tournament trips and three appearances in the semifinals since 2005.
The No. 4 (2A) Gaels, meanwhile, are clicking along again at 17-6 overall. They're 131-29 with Joe Shanks at the helm in the last five seasons, which includes a state title in 2009 and another trek to Des Moines in 2010.
How do they do it? Let's look at the statistics, because in baseball, numbers never lie.
The Dodgers currently rank seventh defensively in 4A with a fielding percentage of .953. They're also 10th in earned run average (2.75) and fourth in fewest walks allowed (59) - critical categories that yielded similar results during their 2010 semifinal run.
St. Edmond is seventh defensively in 2A as well with a .944 percentage. The Gaels' team ERA (1.96) rates eighth, and they've issued only 51 free passes on the mound - the second lowest total in their class.
It's no coincidence that pitching and defense - hallmarks of any good baseball program - are the calling cards for both Elsbecker and Shanks. They're winning the right way, and in the process, establishing a culture that breeds lofty expectations while combating graduation losses.
The intangibles are as important as anything though. Fort Dodge and St. Edmond display the kind of selfless nature that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Chemistry is definitely on their side, even if - on paper - this was tabbed a rebuilding year for these squads.
Ten years ago, 25-loss seasons were the norm at FDSH and the Gaels were struggling to finish above .500. Today, our city boasts two of the better programs the state has to offer on the diamond. Take some time this evening and see what winning baseball is all about.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org