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DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Reclassification for 2021 will help ease Dodgers’ long-standing struggle with football schedule

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Jake Erickson makes a play for Fort Dodge against eventual Class 4A champion Ankeny this past season.

In 1994, the best Fort Dodge football team I’ve ever seen visited West Des Moines and lost to Valley during the regular season, 41-6.

History repeated itself in 2000, when the Tigers beat an otherwise-playoff caliber Dodger squad by the exact same score.

The 2005 Fort Dodge Dodgers were 6-2 against the rest of their schedule, but Valley trounced them twice — once in the regular season and once in the playoffs — by a total point differential of 75-18.

In 2010, a ranked FDSH squad brimming with talent, confidence and on their way to a CIML Iowa Conference crown suffered a 42-3 setback at West Des Moines Dowling.

And the 2018 Dodgers, who re-wrote all of the program’s offensive record books during a 7-2 campaign, were rewarded with a first-round playoff game against Dowling — at the time, the five-time defending Class 4A state champions — with the Maroons pitching a 41-0 shutout on the way to their sixth title in a row.

I use these games not as anecdotal examples, but rather, main talking points for the elephant in the room. It existed way back in 1992, when first Fort Dodge joined the CIML. Today, that elephant is bigger than ever before.

In football especially, the Dodgers simply don’t belong with the Valleys and Dowlings or, more recently, Waukees and Ankenys of the world. That’s not disparaging our community’s athletes, and it’s not an excuse. It’s simply stating a fact. Everyone sees it. But until Thursday, nothing had been done to shake things up.

The Iowa High School Athletic Association changed that by formally announcing the first large-class classification shift in over 30 years. The top 36 schools on the state’s enrollment list will move to a new Class 5A this fall. This means Fort Dodge — currently at No. 38, but well below the cutoff line — will compete at the 4A level, joining similar-sized schools like Mason City, Indianola, Waterloo East, Des Moines Hoover, Burlington, Clinton and North Scott.

According to the most recent Iowa BEDS document (total students in grades 9-11), Fort Dodge has an enrollment of 844 (or 281 per class). Waukee, by comparison, is at 2,267 (average of 756). Valley is at 2,192 (731). Johnston is 1,763 (588). All are at least twice as big as FDSH.

Ankeny, which split in 2013, now has two schools — Ankeny High and Centennial — in the Top-15 in the state for enrollment. As recently as the mid-1990s, Fort Dodge and Ankeny were similar in size, both with their schools and overall population.

Today, Ankeny has 61,900 residents (up from approximately 25,000 in 1995), with 2,655 students in grades 9-11 (up from approximately 950 in 1995). Fort Dodge is at 24,300 and 844, respectively, in 2020-21.

In the not-so-distant future, both the Ankeny and Waukee school districts are planning on adding a third high school — Waukee is first splitting next year — and at that point, all six schools in the two communities will still land in the state’s largest athletic class.

In other words, things have changed dramatically since the CIML added Fort Dodge nearly 30 years ago. At the time, Waukee was a 2A program. Johnston and Southeast Polk were still in 3A. Now they are all in Iowa’s Top-5 for enrollment.

On the football field especially, the numbers absolutely matter. For example, the Dodgers’ all-time record against Valley is 4-22. Fort Dodge is 3-21 versus the Ankeny schools, 2-8 against Waukee, 3-7 versus Southeast Polk, and 1-8 against Dowling. In 2010 and ’11, Fort Dodge faced Valley, Waukee, Dowling and Urbandale in the regular season alone, while squaring off with Waukee and Ankeny in the playoffs, respectively.

The Dodgers are recently coming off the most prominent decade on the gridiron in 70 years. Since 2009, the Dodgers have gone 61-54 overall, and are 27-6 against main rivals Ames, Marshalltown and Mason City.

Yet during that same stretch of success, FDSH is a combined 4-26 versus Valley, Dowling, Ankeny, Waukee and Southeast Polk — making them 57-28 against everyone else.

This isn’t a perfect plan. And it doesn’t guarantee anything for the Dodgers moving forward. There are plenty of talented programs that will join them at the “new” 4A level: North Scott, Indianola, Dallas Center-Grimes, Norwalk, Cedar Rapids Xavier, Council Bluffs Lewis Central and Waverly-Shell Rock, to name a few, are perennial contenders.

They aren’t the state’s behemoths, though. Fort Dodge can breathe a little easier today, knowing it’s going to be more about having comparable talent and depth moving forward. In the past, the Dodgers had to hope their top athletes were enough and hang on for dear life. The rosters weren’t even remotely comparable.

Fort Dodge played one of the tougher slates in the state this past fall, losing four of its five games — Ankeny, Sioux City East, Urbandale and Dowling — to opponents with a combined record of 29-7. All eight of their 2020 opponents will be in 5A this coming season.

The schedule has taken a physical and mental toll on even the best Dodger teams, year after year, for as long as I can remember. Fort Dodge has been forced to punch above its weight over and over again. It has done so admirably. But when push came to shove and injuries slowly decimated the lineup, the program never had much a chance to advance in the postseason — where it hasn’t won a single game since 1994 (its only playoff victory in the last 42 years).

This gives Fort Dodge an opening. The shift is long overdue, but better late than never. The Iowa high school football coaches and IHSAA Board of Control deserve credit for addressing an issue that could help rejuvenate a sport in desperate need of a more competitive balance.

There have been memorable Dodger moments on the gridiron against the state’s elite: a 2010 conference-title win at Valley. A historic comeback and last-second victory at Southeast Polk in 2018. It’s been entertaining to watch Fort Dodge scratch, claw and battle as the little school that could, trying to take down football programs with Div. I talent and rosters at least double their size.

Realistically speaking, though, these “rivalries” won’t exactly be missed. And frankly, this kind of reclassification should be seriously considered in other sports moving forward as well.

My heart was a bit nostalgic when I heard the news. My head? It was saying good riddance.

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

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