CHAMPIONS START WITH CLEAN SLATE
Expectations remain high, but hungry Dodgers realize 2021 title is in the past
Ten months ago, the Fort Dodge softball program fulfilled a life-long collective dream by capturing its first ever state championship.
On paper, many of those same Dodger players will be back on the field this season as head coach Andi Adams’s squad goes for gold again.
This team isn’t taking a traditional approach to attempting a rare large-class title repeat, though.
“Our motto is, ‘Defend Nothing,'” said Adams, who is beginning her 22nd year at the helm. “The slate is wiped clean. What we did in 2021 doesn’t matter at all today. We’re in pursuit of the same thing everyone else is chasing.
“That championship (a season ago) was a special moment for our program, our players, our coaches, our school and our community. But it’s nothing but a memory now. We can’t live in the past.”
All-state honorees Jalen Adams, Tory Bennett and Mariah Myers return to a lineup that still has a familiar feel of star power. With Adams, Bennett, Myers, senior stalwart Haley Wills and freshman phenom Lucy Porter back in the stable — representing 24 combined seasons of elite-level varsity experience — Fort Dodge will undoubtedly be a serious contender again in the weeks to come.
A number of newcomers are filling the final five lineup spots, however, making the Dodgers an intriguing combination of proven talent and untapped potential.
“We’ll get there,” said Adams, who is 672-277 at FDSH and 725-310 overall as a head coach in her Hall of Fame career. “Right now? We have a lot of work to do and a lot of questions to answer. But (the postseason) doesn’t start today. It’s seven weeks away. We’ll be a much different team in early July compared to the fourth week of May.”
Only three programs — Cedar Rapids Jefferson (1997 and ’98), West Des Moines Valley (2007 and ’08) and Pleasant Valley (2017 and ’18) — have successfully gone back-to-back as champs in Iowa’s largest class during the modern era.
Adams, the coach’s daughter, is back for a senior encore in her fifth season of varsity action. Already the most decorated and statistically dominant hurler in school history, Adams’s next act is to establish herself among the all-time greats to ever suit up as an Iowa high school softball player.
The University of Iowa recruit is poised to soon become Fort Dodge’s career leader for strikeouts (26 away from Kylee Jones) and wins (15 away from Suzanne Stripling). Adams has a career record of 88-9 with 660 Ks, and has been an all-stater four times in as many years — including a first teamer in three consecutive campaigns.
“Jalen’s still approaching all of this like she has something to prove,” Andi Adams said. “Winning state (in 2021) was a goal for her — not ‘the’ goal. She’s the type of athlete who is never satisfied, and who won’t rest on her laurels.
“As a senior, she’s finding out that her leadership role is changing. And as I’ve said from day one, a single player can’t win it all by herself. She’d be the first to tell you how important her teammates are. They collectively make the difference here; it’s not just about Jalen.”
Adams went 3-0 at state a year ago, with 21 innings pitched, just three earned runs allowed, two shutouts, one no-hitter and 26 strikeouts. She was the all-tournament captain.
Quietly but convincingly, Porter put together one of the more impressive eighth-grade pitching seasons in program history as a twinbill complement to Adams. The first team all-CIML Iowa Conference selection posted a perfect 13-0 record with a 1.11 ERA in 2021. Combined with Adams (25-1, 0.66), the duo worked over 200 innings and only lost once — a 1-0 setback to Muscatine that was followed by 18 consecutive victories and the state crown.
“Lucy’s demeanor is wise beyond her years,” Andi Adams said. “She’s confident and trusts her defense. We weren’t necessarily expecting her to emerge the way she did at the start of the season, but by the end, we couldn’t keep her out (of the rotation).”
Junior Lydia Lara and sophomore Olivia Totten are also in the mix for FDSH.
Bennett, the shortstop, and Wills, at third base, comprise one of the state’s formidable left sides. The two seniors have played in a combined 307 career games, and the Dodgers have a staggering overall record of 138-22 with Bennett, Wills and Adams on the field together.
“Tory and Haley are our rocks,” Andi Adams said. “Tory has just this calm swagger, with zero hesitation or question that she’s going to make the play or get the hit. She thrives on pressure, and loves being a leader for the younger players.
“This is Haley’s time. I truly believe she’s going to take a huge step forward. She’s been absolutely crushing the ball, and she’s as steady as it gets in the field.”
Bennett, like Adams a University of Iowa commit, was third team all-state after batting .455 with 36 RBI and 50 runs scored a year ago. She also stole 23 bases. Wills hit .316 with 34 runs, 21 RBI and 11 steals. And the duo combined to commit only six errors in 2021.
Eighth-grade sensation Mariah Myers makes the move from first base to catcher, where she will be replacing three-time first team all-stater and current Iowa Hawkeye Tristin Doster. Myers took high school ball by storm as an intimidating presence last summer, hitting .431 and coming a single RBI shy of the single-season school record with 57.
“Mariah is a rare and unbelievable talent,” Adams said. “Her softball IQ is off the charts — I’ve never really seen anything like it in all my years as a coach. She’s gaining confidence in herself as a leader, too. She’s so strong and versatile.
“It’s funny, because I think of our senior class and Mariah, who just turned 15 years old, as kind of the same group. And she keeps getting better.”
Adams and Porter will switch at first base when the other is pitching. Haley Wills’s younger sister, freshman Ashlyn Wills, will bat ninth and play second base.
Sophomore Macy Brown is slated to catch when Myers occasionally fills in at second.
Fort Dodge is in full rebuild mode here, with a slew of candidates fighting for three starting positions.
Juniors Maggie Elsbecker (left field) and Lara (right) will be at the corner slots, with either freshman Meah McCaleb, freshman Cadence Touney or sophomore Mackenzie McIlrath patrolling center field. Junior Reese Pederson is also an option, as Adams pointed out “everything is still kind of wide open.”
“It’s tough to replace a Sophia Klinger (in center) or a Chloe Wertz (in left),” Adams said. “They gave this program everything they had; that (’21) senior class, along with Tristin and Dallas (Richardson), was everything you could ask for both on and off the field. But I have confidence in what we have here. It’s just going to take game experience. It will all solve itself with time.
“We need each and every one of these kids. They all bring something different to the table. They’re all working hard, and even though I’m not the most patient person in the world, I have to keep reminding myself to not worry as much early on — especially with them putting the time into getting better every day.”
Sophomore Sienna Attig is currently injured, but “again, has a lot of potential,” Adams said. “There is both a short- and long-term need here for a lot of these kids. Their roles are obviously important (in 2022), but when these seniors graduate, this is also the future of the program.”
Elleena Dunn will be a courtesy runner, along with Pederson, who is “elite on the basepaths…incredibly smart,” Adams said.
Schedule and Coaches
The Dodgers will again take on the best the state has to offer. Fort Dodge is in the CIML Iowa Conference with heavyweights Ankeny Centennial — last year’s state runner-up — Ankeny and Waukee Northwest.
Traditional powers West Des Moines Valley, Dallas Center-Grimes and Ballard are also on the slate, and the FDSH Invitational — June 17 and 18 — is annually the toughest field in Iowa.
“Waukee Northwest is going to be loaded,” Adams said. “And of course, Centennial and Ankeny are always tough. Ames, Mason City and Marshalltown have some talent.
“The idea is to challenge and prepare ourselves for (the tournament). We’ve never shied away from a challenge, and never will. I’d rather lose a few games than beat up on inferior competition and create a false sense of security.”
Adams has retained her championship coaching staff, which includes Molly Matthes, Aaron Miller and Tom McClimon. Doster and Wertz will coach the middle school squad.
“They’re the best — what more can I say,” Adams smiled. “All of them are invaluable and so incredibly important to me for different reasons. I can’t do it without them…period. And that extends to TK and Chloe, Bre and Cassie (Tjebben) before them (at the middle school level), (trainer) Bre (Drees), the parents who help out in the system and everyone else. It takes a village. This is a Fort Dodge program in every sense of the word.
“We just want to continue to make our community proud. This is a fun group and I hope everyone is excited to see Dodger softball starting up again. Trust me, they want it all again: the winning, of course, but having fun and making memories. So we’re all looking forward to that. It’s the culmination of many years of success and heartache; tears of happiness and disappointment. We live it all here.”
The Dodgers open at 5 p.m. on Monday evening at Rogers Park against Mason City.
2022 FORT DODGE SOFTBALL
Seniors — Jalen Adams, Tory Bennett, Haley Wills.
Juniors — Maggie Elsbecker, Lydia Lara, Reese Pederson.
Sophomores — Mackenzie McIlrath, Olivia Totten, Macy Brown, Sienna Attig.
Freshmen — Mariah Myers, Lucy Porter, Ashlyn Wills, Meah McCaleb, Cadence Touney, Elleena Dunn.
May 23 — Mason City; 24 — at Dallas Center-Grimes; 27 — West Des Moines Valley; 31 — Ankeny Centennial.
June 2 — Waukee Northwest; 4 — at West Des Moines Valley Shootout; 8 — at Ames; 10 — at Ballard; 13 — Ankeny; 15 — at Marshalltown; 16 — at Mason City; 17-18 — Fort Dodge Invitational; 20 — at Ankeny Centennial; 24-25 — at Marion Linn-Mar Tournament; 27 — Ames; 29 — at Ankeny; 30 — at Waukee Northwest.
July 1 — at Dallas Center-Grimes Invitational; 5 — Marshalltown; 12 — regional tournament.