Even without a team title, these Dodgers are truly elite

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla The Fort Dodge wrestling team stands with its state runner-up team trophy on Saturday night in Des Moines.

DES MOINES — Like most sports, wrestling is all about the bottom line. It’s a no-nonsense world defined by wins and losses. There’s gold, and there’s everything else. There’s a champion, and there’s everyone else.

Despite an inspiring run of tournament success over the last three years, no one in the Fort Dodge Senior High camp would even pretend to be satisfied by finishing third, second and second, respectively, in the team race. These Dodgers talk titles, want titles, and aren’t happy with anything but titles.

I had a conversation with a community member recently about Fort Dodge’s inability to overtake Southeast Polk as king of Iowa’s large class. The Dodgers most recently won team crowns in 1980 and 1985, but haven’t technically been back on top since. The tone at that point tends to drift away from what head coach Bobby Thompson’s squad has accomplished, focusing more on why they haven’t been able to match their championship forefathers.

The wrestlers and coaches won’t give reasons or explanations, because it may sound like excuses. But I’ll go to the mat for all of them and say that, pound-for-pound and given what has transpired over these last three years, the golden era of Dodger wrestling is happening right now, in real time. I don’t care what metal FDSH brings home compared to the Rams or the rest of the field.

Fort Dodge had three state finalists in three consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1930s. They crowned at least two state champions in the same tournament for the third straight year, which has never been done before. Senior Triston Lara and juniors Brody Teske and Cayd Lara all currently rank among the Top-8 in career victories, and Teske, junior Drew Bennett and Triston Lara hold three of the Top-5 program spots for all-time win percentage. Teske is the school’s first-ever three-time champ, and now owns three of the program’s 12 individual seasons without a loss. Triston Lara graduates with an FDSH-best 170 triumphs. The Dodgers have seven individual titles in the last three years, which is better than the previous 26 combined.

I’m not at all discrediting the dominant Fort Dodge squads of the ’80s, or the ’40s, or even the ’30s, when our town was practically the center of the state’s prep wrestling universe. I just want to be honest about what the Dodgers are up against in Southeast Polk, an absolute machine of a program that has nearly three times as many grapplers as FDSH in a school that’s more than twice as big. The Rams are a relentless combination of size, resources and championship culture. Instead of wondering why the Dodgers can’t overtake them, I think we should appreciate what it takes just to rightfully be mentioned in the same breath.

Teske is arguably the most commanding force in Iowa right now. The second-ranked 120-pounder in the United States breaks opponents down with ruthless precision, and against in-state competition, there is a methodical, almost mesmerising nature to his dominance.

Simply put, Teske is on a whole different level, the likes of which we have never seen in Fort Dodge.

The Lara brothers became the Dodgers’ first same-season sibling finalists since Frank and Tony Gargano in 1931. Triston, who admits he bleeds red and black above all else, is headed for the University of Northern Iowa. Cayd lost in the championship round at 152 pounds to nationally-ranked Nelson Brands, the son of former Iowa Hawkeye All-American Terry Brands.

Bennett, meanwhile, was undefeated before his semifinal setback to Waukee’s Kyle Biscoglia — also rated in the country’s Top-20 at 113. Bennett has been a bronze medalist in consecutive seasons, but is on all of the nation’s big boards as well. And junior Damond Lockner is a repeat state medalist who is just starting to scratch the surface on his potential.

Sam Cook, a 2016 graduate, won 162 career matches, two state crowns, and had a full-ride wrestling scholarship offer from the University of Oklahoma. Erik Birnbaum was the program’s leader for career wins before being passed by Cook, who then gave way to Lara.

The best part for the future? Nine of the Dodgers’ 11 state qualifiers from 2017 will return next year: Teske, Cayd Lara, Bennett, Lockner, junior Dorian Franklin, sophomores Drevon Ross, Triston Licht and Kaden Smith, and freshman Brooks Cowell.

On paper, other Fort Dodge teams and eras may have accomplished more from top to bottom. On paper, Southeast Polk has enjoyed the upper-hand thanks to its obvious advantages. On paper, true stars like Cayd Lara and Bennett have come up just short despite their elite rankings and glossy records.

This is all relative, though, to what the Dodgers face on a daily basis in the modern large-class landscape. Despite having the odds stacked heavily against them, Thompson’s squad hasn’t — and isn’t — going anywhere.

So the next time someone questions Fort Dodge’s legitimacy, or the ability to call itself a true championship contender in the land of both individual and team giants, remind any and all skeptics that this team — this program — is as real as it gets. Their overall talent is generational, if not unprecedented, and believe it or not, they’re even better people away from the mat.

Appreciate this, Dodger fans. All of it. Ours is a wrestling community, grounded in both tradition and results, dating back nearly 100 years. But when it comes to the best of the best, this group is undoubtedly in the conversation. Don’t let their lack of a team title say otherwise.

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 sports@messengernews.net