Home-field advantage

For the 47th consecutive season, state softball champions will be crowned in Fort Dodge at the end of this week.

The five days of tournament action at Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex always seem to go by in a flash. Before the first pitch christens the event Monday morning and the rapid-fire pace begins, let’s take a moment to appreciate the who, what, when, where why and how of the 2016 field in its entirety.

There are 40 programs bringing nearly 600 athletes and approximately 20,000 loyal fans to our community. A total of 60 ballgames will be played in five classes; each team is guaranteed three contests on either side of the bracket, as softball is Iowa’s last team state event to offer full consolation rounds throughout.

For the eighth time since 2002, Fort Dodge Senior High will be an active tournament host. The 14th-ranked Dodgers unseated defending champ Waukee in the regional semifinals on their way to a 5A quarterfinal bid. They face another powerhouse in Johnston – which has reached the final round in three consecutive summers – this evening at 5 p.m.

Solon (3A) and Iowa City Regina (2A) are the only returning titleists, and just 18 of the 40 state qualifiers from a year ago were able to make it back. Messenger-area schools Newell-Fonda (2A) and North Union (1A) advanced to the elite eight in their respective classes; both finished sixth last season.

West Des Moines Valley and Solon are making their sixth straight trips to Rogers Park, which is currently tied for the longest streak among all classes. Lynville-Sully (six in a row before ’16) and Dallas Center-Grimes (five) were upended in regional play; meanwhile, recent state staples Carlisle, Akron-Westfield and Martensdale St. Mary’s all return after a one-year hiatus.

Atlantic, Collins-CMB, Belle Plaine and West Harrison are newcomers to the dance.

There are 34 ranked squads in the 40-team field; seven in 5A, 4A and 3A, eight in 2A, and five in 1A. Four of the five No. 1 programs advanced: Carlisle (4A), Benton Community (3A), Durant (2A) and Akron-Westfield (1A).

The Messenger’s award-winning sports department is committed to bringing readers pitch-by-pitch coverage of every game throughout. Stories, statistics, pictures, brackets, features and social media updates are all part of the package.

We’re again devoting an entire web page to the tournament – click on the ‘State Softball’ icon on the left side of our sports site at www.messengernews.net – and a 32-page special preview section is in today’s Messenger, highlighting every qualifying school. Photo galleries will be available at CU.messengernews.net as well.

We want your state experience to be both memorable and personal. Whether you’re an old hand at the Fort Dodge trip or visiting for the first time, our staff will do our best to make this feel like a hometown newspaper in the days to come. We may know the routine after nearly 50 years in the game serving over 800,000 fans, but we’re still motivated to capture the spontaneity and raw emotion that will undoubtedly bring excitement to the days ahead.

This event is our community’s hallmark. The tradition is important to us, and we hope our work reflects that. This week, we’re not welcoming you to a new town or a new ballpark – in our own way, we’re welcoming you home.

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