Andi Adams has simplified her team's philosophy in preparation for the 2014 softball season.
The Fort Dodge head coach doesn't want her Dodgers to ever rest on their laurels, even when - or especially if - things are going well.
''If you think you're working hard, work harder,'' said Adams, who is in her 14th season at the helm. ''A lot of programs work hard. We have to separate ourselves from everyone else. No matter what, we need to walk off the field knowing we did our very best.
Messenger photo by Eric Pratt
Fort Dodge softball returning letterwinners are, front row (left to right): Becca Sunken, Toryn Pederson, Bre Tjebben, McKinna Teske and Madi Bennett. Back:?Lani Van Zyl, Maddie Egli, Mallory Kilian, Madison Bodholdt, Riley Hartman and Brielle Ulrich. Not pictured: Lexi Astor and Jamie Haden.
''The same rules apply within the team. If you feel like you've settled into a position in the lineup or on the field, that can't stop you from striving to get better. There are no guarantees from day to day. Nothing is handed to our players. And that's the way it should be.''
Fort Dodge was 26-16 a year ago, winning a Central Iowa Conference Northern division championship and reaching the regional finals for the third consecutive postseason. The Dodgers join the Class 4A field this summer despite playing their prototypical 5A-dominated schedule, which starts with a single varsity contest tonight at Rogers Park against Waterloo East.
''I'm very excited to see what this year brings,'' said Adams, who sports a 430-196 record at FDSH and is 483-224 overall. ''We have put pretty high expectations on ourselves, and there is certainly a lot of potential with this group. We have positions, though, where our players still have to grow into their roles.
2014 FORT DODGE SOFTBALL
Seniors - Lexi Astor, Madison Bodholdt, Maddie Egli, Jamie Haden.
Juniors - Lani Van Zyl, Kinna Teske, Toryn Pederson, Cassie Tjebben, Mallory Kilian, Becca Sunken, Riley Hartman, Brielle Ulrich, Molly Matthes.
Sophomores - Madi Bennett, Liza Hatcher.
Freshman - Meagan Hartman.
May 26 - Waterloo East; 27 - Webster City; 28 - Ankeny Centennial; 31 - Sioux City Heelan Invitational.
June 4 - at Carroll Kuemper; 7 - at West Des Moines Valley Shootout; 9 - Marshalltown; 11 - Johnston; 13 - at Cedar Falls; 16 - at Mason City; 18 - at West Des Moines Dowling; 20-21 - Fort Dodge Invitational; 23 - at Ames; 25 - Waukee; 27-28 - Marion Linn-Mar Invitational; 30 - at Marshalltown.
July 1 - Ames; 2 - at Ankeny; 7 - Mason City; 8 - at West Des Moines Valley.
''I'm confident that we'll get there; I really respect and admire both the attitude and work ethic of our kids.''
Fort Dodge is a mix of mavens and greenhorns around the diamond. The Dodgers welcome back multi-year letterwinners Lani Van Zyl (shortstop), Madi Bennett (second base) and Madison Bodholdt (first base), but the catcher and third base slots are still developing.
Van Zyl, already a four-year starter as just a junior. scored a team-high 38 runs in 2013. She hit .357 and stole 11 bases.
''Lani is just a natural,'' Adams said. ''She has the confidence and the athleticism, and I really think she can take another big step forward now both in the field and at the plate.''
Bennett, now in her third season at the varsity level as a sophomore, batted .284 with 18 runs scored and 16 RBI last summer. She will be backed up by junior Toryn Pederson.
''Madi is a prototypical Fort Dodge player - she's scrappy and relentless,'' Adams said. ''She's got a lot of good softball ahead of her. Madi is very solid defensively, and she'll take that next step with the bat as well.''
Bodholdt, a senior, has ''really stepped forward'' so far in preparation for the season, according to Adams.
''She's what we need at first base; I swear sometimes it seems like she's made out of elastic,'' Adams laughed. ''Maddie is able to move and stretch in the field, and she's improving offensively. Plus she's doing an outstanding job as a leader.''
Molly Matthes and Jamie Haden are the frontrunners to replace the graduated Taylor Messerly behind home plate. Matthes is a junior; Haden, a senior.
''They're both very capable of doing the job,'' Adams said. ''Now it's just a matter of getting them varsity innings and settling into a rhythm with our pitchers. It will come as the season progresses. I believe in both of them.''
University of Northern Iowa softball recruit Mallory Kilian will be Fort Dodge's third baseman when she isn't pitching. The junior - like Van Zyl, a four-year starter now - hit .437 with team-high totals in home runs (7), runs batted in (41) and doubles (10) in 2013.
Fellow juniors McKinna Teske and Cassie Tjebben are pushing each other for playing time at the hot corner when Kilian is in the circle.
''Mallory has become a true threat at the plate, and she's done it because she's committed herself to getting better,'' Adams said. ''Third base is going to be an interesting situation. Like catcher, we'll just have to see how things develop once the season starts.''
The Dodgers welcome back their entire unit here, though Adams is juggling the rotation.
Senior Lexi Astor, a two-time returning all-state player, is likely switching positions with classmate Maddie Egli.
''Right now, we're looking at Lexi in left field and Maddie in center,'' Adams said. ''I think it's a move that will work and benefit both of them, especially down the road.
''Lexi is so valuable to our lineup and a menace on the bases. In a lot of ways, we'll go as she goes.''
Astor hit a team-high .440 last summer, while also pacing FDSH in hits (55) and runs (38). Adams has also moved her to the No. 2 spot in the order, trading spots with Van Zyl.
''Again, we'll see how things transpire,'' Adams said. ''We're just looking for the most productive way to score runs and find a level of consistency, which means being open to adjusting and trying new things.''
Egli batted .357 with nine doubles, 27 runs and 40 RBI.
''Maddie is a solid clean-up hitter,'' Adams said. ''Very dependable. I really like what I'm seeing from her (in the preseason) as a senior leader.''
Riley Hartman, another junior, gets the nod in right field. In addition, Adams has been pleased with the progression of backup juniors Becca Sunken and Brielle Ulrich.
''Nothing is set in stone,'' Adams said. ''Our lineup on Monday may not look like our lineup for the rest of the week. We want to see how our kids react to certain situations and responsibilities.
''We have some nice depth, thanks in large part to our (nine-player) junior class, and healthy competition is always a good thing.''
Kilian went 16-7 last season, with a 1.87 earned run average and 106 strikeouts in 153.3 innings pitched. She has a career record of 40-24 in three years of work.
Tjebben (7-4 a year ago) and freshman Meagan Hartman (3-4) are also back for the Dodgers.
''I'm both excited and intrigued by our pitchers,'' Adams said. ''I think all three could complement each other very well. Mallory will be our No. 1, but that doesn't mean Cassie and Meagan are any less important.
''I really need Cassie to be both the pitcher and the player I'm envisioning. I know she has it in her. We've seen flashes at times when she was an underclassman, but we could have a real breakout year if she has one (individually).''
The Dodgers will be defending their CIC title against the likes of Mason City (21-14 overall, 8-4 in the league), Ames (20-21, 5-7) and Marshalltown (16-23, 2-10).
''Ames always has talent, and they've got a good nucleus coming back,'' Adams said. ''There are some unknown variables with Mason City and Marshalltown, so we'll just see how it plays out. We are excited and hungry to win it again, but we also see such an elite array of cross-conference opponents - it's just non-stop starting (Monday). We jump in head-first and don't look back.
''Playing a schedule filled with 5A opponents should help us when the (4A regional tournament) rolls around. With that being said, it's not like the 4A field has been inferior 5A in recent years. When it comes to the state tournament qualifiers, it could be argued that 4A has been just as good from top to bottom.''
Adams will be assisted by Jaci Faidley at the varsity level. Faidley played at Drake University, where she set the school's single-season home run record.
Emily Grell coaches the freshmen. Megan Gibson, Megan Risetter, Mackenzie Alsott and Dave Newman are also assistants in the program at the lower levels.