Dodgers open season on road with rival Mason City

MASON CITY — For 14 consecutive years, the Fort Dodge football team has maintained an upper-hand on arch rival Mason City by never taking their success in the series for granted.

Given the date and location of Friday night’s season opener, the Dodgers are once again keeping their focus squarely and solely on the Mohawks.

The 2018 curtain is raised on the road for head coach Matt Miller’s squad, with the Decker Sporting Goods Trophy again on the line in one of the state’s oldest gridiron traditions. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

Thirteen starters are back for FDSH, including all-state senior quarterback Drake Miller and six of his offensive teammates. While the Dodgers appear poised for a return to the plus side of the break-even mark after back-to-back 4-5 campaigns, nothing is on their mind this Friday beyond Mason City.

“We have enough respect for their program, their players and the history of this rivalry to know better than to start looking ahead,” Matt Miller said. “You only have nine of these games, and this is Week 1. There is no more important (assignment) on our schedule than the one right in front of us. We have a lot to prove to ourselves, and this a tremendous challenge to do so right out of the gate — especially on the road.”

An offense that produced nearly 39 points per contest and the third-highest single-season total in school history welcomes Miller back for a third year, alongside super sophomore tailback Dayson Clayton and three stalwart linemen. The 200-pound Miller threw for a Class 4A-best 31 touchdowns in 2017, and set a one-year FDSH record with 2,340 passing yards.

The 207-pound Clayton accumulated nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage – unprecedented numbers for a freshman – and senior trench anchors Dalton Schmidt (280 pounds) and Logan Finowski (285) already have nearly 30 varsity appearances between the two of them combined.

The Dodgers are in a transition period at receiver, where two of their most decorated wideouts ever — Trey Mosley and Tyrnan Lara — graduated. Six-foot-3 junior Tysen Kershaw does return, along with classmate Jace Peterson, who was a regular before suffering an injury last fall. Juniors Nick Bice and Russell Potratz will make their first respective starts alongside Kershaw and Peterson.

“Having Drake, Dalton and Logan back as senior captains is a great starting point for our offense, and Dayson has all the tools to be an elite back,” Miller said. “You don’t just snap your fingers and replace Trey and Tyrnan, but I like what I’m seeing from the kids we have in the mix. There’s plenty of depth and potential there. Ty and Jace know what to expect, and there are others who have just been patiently waiting their turn.”

Junior lineman Bryson Opande (220) and senior kicker Ben Nebel (28 of 31 on PATs) are the other veterans on offense. Newcomers Geoff Astor (220), Sawyer Springer (215) and Brandon Porter (220) will flank Schmidt, Finowski and Opande up front.

Miller is the first to admit the defense needs work relative to how it performed a year ago. Senior captain Mason Bodholdt and junior Austin Lee return in the middle of what Miller considers a very active and athletic linebacker quartet, which will also introduce juniors Shane Halligan and Levi Egli.

“We have to be better defensively, both in terms of our consistency and ability to create turnovers,” Miller said. “We only had nine takeaways in nine games (last season); it’s tough to win if the defense isn’t creating opportunities for the offense. And I think our linebackers can do that (in 2018). They’re the ringleaders.”

Senior Bryer Nelson and junior Brycen Bell are back in a secondary that will also feature senior Anthony Wagner, senior Jazyon Potratz and junior Asle Thorson. Fort Dodge has senior nose guard Carson Spiker (260) on the line, with Opande and seniors Carson Martin and Ethan Vinson at the point of attack as well.

Finowski and junior Colten Munter (260) are other options on the defensive front.

“Mason City is going to have a lot of tight formations and really try to establish the run,” Miller said. “This is a good test for where we’re at defensively, because we struggled to stop (opponents on the ground) last season.

“Bryer and Brycen are established playmakers in our secondary, and Anthony, Jayzon and Asle have all been looking good in camp. We’re thin up front — there’s no way around that — but Carson is back and the other guys have some fight. (The Mohawks) will be a challenge for them, and we’re going to have to match their intensity. Mason City week is always physical.”

Miller added, “at this point, we just need a game.”

“It’s that time. We’re as ready as we’re going to be for an opener,” Miller said. “We need to hit someone else. With the playoff (format) being what it is now (open to the 16 top qualifiers in a point system instead of just district champions and runner-ups), every game is important and every game counts.

“We have to keep getting better every day, and play with that sense of urgency we’ve been able to bring to this series (in recent years). We’ve done a lot of the little things that add up (to success) against Mason City, and our kids take a lot of pride in keeping that trophy on our side.”

The Decker Sporting Goods Trophy was introduced in 2005, and Fort Dodge has been its only home since. The Dodgers hold a 54-41-8 all-time edge in the rivalry, which is the second-longest in Iowa high school history. It dates back to 1912.

FDSH’s 14-game series winning streak, which started in ’04, is the longest stretch in what has been otherwise a very closely-contested series.