Community rallies to celebrate in stirring title tribute

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Senior state champions Drew Bennett (left) and Brody Teske celebrate at the Dodgers welcome home celebration after returning to Fort Dodge as Class 3A state champions. For more photos, visit CU at messengernews.net

A celebration 33 years in the making brought the Dodger gym to life on Sunday, as the freshly-minted state champion Fort Dodge wrestling team returned home to a hero’s welcome.

Fans lined the streets and cars caravanned into town with FDSH school vans, which were escorted by first responders from the Fort Dodge Fire Department, Fort Dodge Police Department, UnityPoint Health-Trinity Regional Medical Center, and the Webster County Sheriff’s Office. By the time everyone had arrived at the school for a 2 p.m. ceremony, there were over 80 vehicles trailing the team.

Nearly 1,000 supporters packed the fieldhouse in a welcome-home event to honor the program for a fourth consecutive year. The mood was different this time around — more euphoric than bittersweet — but the message remained the same: the community loves their Dodgers unconditionally, and the feeling was entirely mutual among the wrestlers.

”I think (senior state champion Drew) Bennett said it best; ‘I did this for my hometown,”’ said Fort Dodge mayor Matt Bemrich, who spoke first. ”What a ride. It’s been an amazing season, and to see all of your hard work culminate in both the dual state and (traditional team) championship … Fort Dodge couldn’t be prouder of you.”

The Dodgers captured their first-ever state duals title last Wednesday in undefeated fashion, then went right back to work and completed a clean sweep with the tournament crown on Saturday night, returning to the state’s prep wrestling summit for the first time since 1985.

Fort Dodge also saw senior Brody Teske become just the 26th four-time individual champion, while classmate Drew Bennett ended a long and sometimes arduous journey to the top as well.

Teske (126 pounds) and Bennett (132) were two of the Dodgers’ school-record nine state medalists. All were in attendance on Sunday.

State runner-ups Cayd Lara (152) and Drake Ayala (106) joined Carson Taylor (5th place, 113), Levi Egli (5th place, 160), Drevon Ross (6th place, 138), Damond Lockner (8th place, 145) and Triston Licht (8th place, 195) in a single-file row facing the crowd, along with state qualifiers Jeremy Ayala (120), Kaden Smith (170), Austin Lee (182) and Logan Finowski (285).

”Congratulations seems inadequate,” Fort Dodge Community School District board president Stu Cochrane declared, ”so gentlemen, welcome to the history books.”

Cochrane pointed out that the Dodgers were the only squad to earn both the dual and traditional titles this season.

”We didn’t see it in 2A. We didn’t see it in 1A,” Cochrane said. ”The emotions of winning a championship, then turning around and having to do it all over again (starting the following morning) for the next three days … that’s incredibly difficult, and a testament to your perseverance.”

FDSH principal Dr. Ken Hayes rattled off a list of record-setting numbers established by this team — many of which elicited standing ovations from the crowd. Head coach Bobby Thompson then thanked his assistants, the administrators and workers throughout the FDCSD, and the families who poured endless hours and resources into bettering the lives of their children.

”There’s no community in the world like Fort Dodge wrestling,” said Thompson, a FDSH graduate and a member of the Dodgers’ 1980 state championship squad. ”We win together. All of us. To prepare for all of this, it takes the support of everyone. All family members. All administrators. All school personnel.

”This isn’t just about us. It’s about all of you, and everyone who has been in that (FDSH wrestling room). Once a Dodger, always a Dodger.”

Drake Ayala, Taylor, Jeremy Ayala, Ross, Egli, Smith, Licht, Finowski and senior 220-pounder Tim Elliott — who helped secure two FDSH victories at state duals with pivotal wins — took turns thanking their support system, the crowd in attendance, and the upperclassmen for picking them up during times of adversity.

”I’m going to miss the seniors,” said Ayala, a nationally-ranked Fargo champion and a silver medalist only behind Mason City superstar Cullan Schriever. ”I’ve looked up to you my whole life. Go Dodgers.”

”’Team’ is an understatement here,” said Elliott, a first-year Dodger. ”You are a family. Thank you for welcoming me in.”

Thompson got retrospective when discussing his four incomparable seniors. Teske, Bennett, Lara and Lockner combined to win 637 matches, with five championships, two runner-up showings and 14 medals in the books.

”We’ve had some amazing young men come through this program in the last four years — guys like Erik Birnbaum, Sam Cook and Triston Lara,” Thompson said. ”I remember after we were third (in 2015), Erik (a senior at the time) said to me afterward, ‘Coach, you’re going to be so good the next (few years).’

”I think about these seniors when they were going with me to Oklahoma for camps in middle school. They were talented then, but to see how (great they have) become … it’s just unbelievable. They kept going with that growth mindset.”

Lockner was the first to approach the podium, and after a standing ovation, reminded himself out loud, ”I have to take this slow,” with his voice already cracking.

”These guys are my brothers,” Lockner said. ”Their problems are my problems. And these coaches, they’re like dads. They helped me out so much physically and mentally … now you’ve got me tearing up.”

Lockner and Thompson then shared a long hug.

Thompson’s emotions really started to get the best of him from that point forward. He introduced Lara, who suffered an excruciating one-point loss in Saturday’s 152-pound final. Despite being a four-time medalist, ranking No. 2 all-time for wins and becoming the FDSH career pins leader, the University of Northern Iowa recruit came up just short of his ultimate prep goal.

”My heart feels like it’s been torn out of my body,” said Lara, who struggled through his speech. ”But it would be extremely selfish of me to (stand up front) and just talk about myself (given what the team accomplished).”

Lara also embraced each of his classmates and Thompson, who then reminded the audience, ”every year, someone doesn’t quite get what they want out of their state experience. And Cayd has been in arguably the toughest weight class for four straight years (placing 7th, 8th, 2nd and 2nd as just the third four-time medalist ever at FDSH). He pinned his way to the finals this season, and that helped win us the traditional state title.

”This young man will be moving on to bigger and better things.”

Bennett — like Lara, a University of Northern Iowa recruit — was next. He opened by tearfully admitting, ”I’ve regretted coming to (the welcome-home ceremony) the last two years (after placing third both times). I couldn’t stand to (look into) the eyes of the people who believed in me.”

”This year, I can say I did it,” Bennett exhaled, which drew more rousing applause. ”Rolling into town, seeing the cars lined up for us … that was incredible. I can’t thank you enough. My coaches, my mom, my dad, my friends … I’ve prayed for the last 365 days (to be at this point).”

Bennett also told a story about etching ‘2018 state champion, 132 pounds’ as reminders at school and at home to serve as daiy motivation.

Even Teske, who usually carries an unflappable demeanor, appeared more vulnerable in this moment of conclusion.

”I’m trying to stay strong — holding back the tears. But they’re tears of joy,” Teske said. ”It’s been an emotional 24 hours.

”This couldn’t have been done without you. You’ve all had a huge impact on my life and our lives. I’ll be heading east (to Penn State University) soon, but I’ll never have all of this (Teske signaled to the crowd).”

Teske lightened the mood a little by telling a story from the summer after his eighth-grade year. While attending his sister’s tennis meet at the Dodger Courts, Teske talked to FDSH activities director Matt Elsbecker about concentrating solely on wrestling in high school.

”I was having a tough time with it, trying to decide if I wanted to stop playing baseball (and just focus on wrestling),” Teske said. ”(Elsbecker) said, I just don’t want you to look back as a senior and be jealous when your friends are all winning state titles.”

The crowd erupted in laughter.

”We’ve grown. We did it. The job is complete,” Teske said. ”We appreciate everything. Thank you for coming. It’s been a hell of a ride.”

Thompson briefly added while choking up, ”Brody and I were talking about the song, ‘Five More Minutes.’ Can I have five more minutes?” He then grabbed Teske and the seniors all hugged each other.

Dodger assistant coaches spoke next, followed by a concluding thought from Elsbecker.

”It’s an honor to stand in front of you,” Elsbecker said. ”The bar has been raised by these young men, and the Dodger train will continue.”