Golden era of Dodger wrestling defined by toughness, togetherness

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla The Fort Dodge wrestling team poses with its third-place trophy on Saturday night in Des Moines. The Dodgers have now placed in the top three of the state’s biggest class for six consecutive seasons.

Fans love to compare and contrast eras and sports. Doing so is human nature and fun to discuss, given a “right” answer rarely exists.

This happens even at the local level with high school programs. In the last 15 years alone, Fort Dodge softball, football, baseball, tennis and swimming have entered the conversation, along with Gael football, basketball, baseball, track, tennis, golf and cross country. We dust off record books and reminisce about the championships and players of yesteryear, weighing in on how they would fare in today’s modern landscape.

When it comes to the most recent stretch of Dodger wrestling, very little doubt remains. This current run ranks among the best our community has ever seen, and it could easily be considered No. 1 after Fort Dodge clinched its sixth consecutive team trophy on Saturday night in Des Moines with a third-place finish.

In the last six years alone, the Dodgers have accumulated 42 individual medals at state, with 12 golds and six silvers. They were traditional state champs in 2018, runner-ups in 2016 and ’17, and took third in 2015, ’19 and now ’20. Fort Dodge also brought home trophies from state duals in ’17, ’18, ’19 and ’20.

To even crack the conversation with the likes of wrestling factories like Southeast Polk and Waverly-Shell Rock in this day and age has basically become an exercise in futility. The state’s largest schools with huge resource advantages — bluebloods like West Des Moines Valley, Waukee, Bettendorf, the Ankenys and Iowa City West — have come and gone since 2015. Only the Dodgers have been a consistent threat to the Rams and Go-Hawks.

Drake Ayala, the nation’s top-ranked 120-pounder, became the program’s eighth back-to-back champion on Saturday night. From 1926 through 2014, only four Dodgers won titles in consecutive seasons. Four have done it since: Sam Cook, Triston Lara, Brody Teske and Ayala. Incredible, given FDSH is steeped in tradition as one of the sport’s founding fathers in Iowa nearly 100 years ago.

Ayala is the name, the hammer, the star. But generational talents like Ayala, Cook, Teske, the Laras or Drew Bennett can’t do it alone.

Take the 2020 squad, which in many ways became a vintage Fort Dodge success story.

Dodger wrestling is Carson Taylor, who grew from a kid with a lot of talent and an uncertain future as a freshman into a three-time state medalist, two-time finalist and ’19 champion. Taylor recognized his potential, honed his craft, became a well-oiled machine, and a leader for the program. He did so by putting in the work and committing himself to an offseason of discipline and sacrifice. Now, Taylor will graduate ranked among the 15 best ever at FDSH for career victories and win percentage.

Dodger wrestling is Levi Egli, who recovered from a devastating knee injury that wiped out his entire junior year to place third at state. Egli dealt with plenty of adversity this season and even this week as well, bouncing back from a broken bone in his hand to capture a district title and clinch a semifinal appearance at 195 pounds. Egli then suffered a crushing loss in a match he controlled in the final four, and was asked to make the lonely, morose turnaround to score team points on the backside of the bracket on Saturday morning. He did — twice — and took third place to help Fort Dodge do the same.

Dodger wrestling is Dreyzon Phillips, who went from outside of the medal room to storming the big stage. Phillips qualified for state a year ago but didn’t place. That all changed in a hurry this season, as the junior burst onto the scene by clinching a No. 2 ranking and the same seed at 138 pounds as a district champ. Only University of Iowa recruit and Ankeny standout Caleb Rathjen kept Phillips from the summit. Still raw and growing, Phillips’ career on the mat is just getting started.

Dodger wrestling is Kody Cook, who — like Phillips — got a taste at Wells Fargo Arena last February before coming up empty. Cook grinded his way through a challenging 152-pound bracket to place sixth. The unranked junior lost to No. 6 Ethan Vetterick of Norwalk in his opener on Thursday, then responded by winning three consecutive matches against rated opponents to secure a medal. He fell to No. 2 Cody Anderson and Vetterick again — both by decision — but was a pleasant surprise overall and has a bright future ahead.

Dodger wrestling is Brandon Mills, who had the kind of breakthrough senior campaign most kids only dream about. Mills, who rotated in and out of the varsity lineup a year ago while accumulating a 13-13 record, established his presence early at 145 pounds. He was competitive in all 48 of his appearances — giving up bonus points in only two of his 14 losses, both against out-of-state Div. I recruits — and Mills took down second-ranked University of Iowa recruit Colby Schriever for both a district crown and a semifinal berth at state. By placing sixth, Mills became the poster child for patience and perseverance. A reminder that athletes still — even in this day and age — will wait their turn, avoid excuses, keep working and get the last laugh on their critics.

Dodger wrestling is multi-time medalists like brothers Brooks and Lane Cowell, who continued to fight and score points on the backside of the brackets in both 2019 and ’20 despite having their championship dreams dashed. Dodger wrestling is senior Austin Lee, a prototypical multi-sport FDSH athlete who returned to state this week after a one-year absence. Dodger wrestling is freshmen qualifiers like Max Bishop and Tucker Pederson, who represent the future of the program.

Dodger wrestling is its leader, Bobby Thompson. Do you know how many times Thompson has been named IWCOA coach of the year in the last six seasons? Inexplicably, none. Do you know how many times he’s deserved it? An argument could be made for all six. Thompson is far from perfect. Yet he’ll fight for the Fort Dodge way of life — cultivating a family atmosphere while insisting on old-school principles and team-first values — until he takes his last coaching breath. You may not always agree with the man and his methods, but you should respect his passion for the program and what he’s done for the community.

This has been done the hard way. Without transfers. Without excuses. The kids bought in. The parents logged the miles and made the sacrifices. The coaches instilled a sense of togetherness.

Long odds didn’t matter. Conventional wisdom was dismissed. The challenges and adversity and reasons to give in to the powers-that-be only served as motivation.

Critics said it couldn’t be done, yet the program is still standing alongside the elite — six years later. You want to question them at this point or take them on? It better be done with a room full of skill, because sheer will remains this program’s hallmark.

Dodger wrestling is still, to this day, Fort Dodge personified. And we’ve never had it this good.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports


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