State tourney experience continues to evolve

Berger praises the present, looks forward to future

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: Rogers Park grounds crew workers get the field ready earlier this week for state tournament action.

Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Executive Director Jean Berger is a forward thinker when it comes to the state softball tournament and its future.

On one hand, the fan and player experience at Rogers Sports Complex is lauded annually for its personal touches and time-honored traditions. At 54 years and counting, this is the longest-standing relationship in Iowa between an annual state event and its tourney host.

That doesn’t mean the IGHSAU — or the Fort Dodge community — is content to rest on its laurels, though.

“We’re right on target with many of the changes and improvements we talked about during the contract extension discussions (that will keep state here until at least 2025),” said Berger, who is in her seventh year of serving in the lead role for the IGHSAU. “(Fort Dodge Parks and Recreation Director) Lori (Branderhorst) and I are in constant communication about what’s working, what isn’t, and what could improve or grow the tournament. It’s important to always consider new ideas and different perspectives, from the facility itself, the format, the setup for the fans and our student-athletes, and the environment they get to enjoy.

“We are just incredibly fortunate to have this partnership with Fort Dodge on so many levels, from the city and its workers and volunteers all the way down through Iowa Central, the (Fort Dodge Community) School District, St. Edmond and so many other local businesses and individuals. They make us feel welcome here…they’ve always made this feel like home.”

From a venue standpoint, lighting the mini-major fields is next on the immediate agenda. Permanent bleachers have been added to the center-field area on Kruger Seeds Field Diamond 1, and a state-of-the-art clubhouse — which will be used by umpires and tournament officials — was recently built adjacent to the complex’s baseball field by Iowa Central Community College.

“We’re seeing steps that improve both the look and feel of the tournament,” Berger said. “I’m anxious to see what adding lights to (the mini-major fields) will add to the equation. It’s going to offer more options and flexibility.”

Among the ideas being considered for the tournament itself is the potential move to a double-elimination format. The IGHSAU will continue to study and survey coaches and schools, weighing the options between double elimination and keeping the consolation round.

“It will be an ongoing part of the discussion,” Berger said. “You see a team lose a close or an extra-inning game…maybe giving them another (opportunity) is the way to go. You’d get a second chance, so to speak, to stay alive (for a championship).”

Berger embraces all of the specific and unique stories associated with state softball in Fort Dodge.

“Using myself as an example, on the way up (to the tournament earlier this week), I hit a deer. Lori went out of her way to make sure I found a good mechanic to come look at my car,” Berger said. “There is a fan from Lisbon who remembers bringing his daughters to Fort Dodge when they were little, and they were given passes to go to (the Rosedale Rapids Aquatic Center). Now they’re here playing as high schoolers. There are just so many examples of the community rising above expectations to take care of the people who come here (during state week). They aren’t treated like visitors. They’re treated like family. And people remember that.”

Berger noted that 31 of the 40 state-qualifying teams stayed on campus at Iowa Central this week. Given Fort Dodge and St. Edmond were co-tourney hosts as local participants, that’s over 80 percent of the visiting field.

“They do a terrific job (at ICCC). I know it’s a great experience for the players and coaches,” Berger said. “Again, we have so many people who embrace their roles and are receptive to our vision. From the top down, Fort Dodge is understanding of both what it needs to do (collectively) and the steps it will take to (remain a future tournament host).”

The aggregate state softball attendance for its lifetime at Rogers Park may eclipse 950,000 this week, meaning the millionth fan to enter the complex should happen sometime in the year 2026.

“Again, I feel like that’s something to be extremely proud of and a number we’ll continue to track as it gets closer,” Berger said. “There are just so many positives to take away from the direction we’re headed in with the sport and the partnership with Fort Dodge…it’s an exciting time to be a softball supporter.”

THE CREDITS: Branderhorst, Grounds and Turf Superintendent Chad Graaf and Maintenance Technician Ryan Zeka annually prepare Rogers Sports Complex for state tournament week by logging countless hours both in preparation and general care.

Maintenance crew members Glenn Yenger, Tom Miller, Jon Astor, Jake Wagner, Matt McCrady, Seth Ramirez, Cal Hartman, Drayton Miller, Evan Pratt, Amaris Harris, Ty Adams, Carson Hanson, Justin Krog, Evan Zeka, Gavin Pederson, Zeke Pineda, Brady Major and Elijah Moore keep the facility in pristine working condition from start to finish. Parks and facility maintenance supervisor Rich Peterson, recreation superintendent Hannah Angstrom, recreation supervisor Erin Arndt and recreation technician Alexis Wolfe are vital pieces to the process as well.

Berger, associate directors Erin Gerlich and Gary Ross, associate director Jason Eslinger (also the softball administrator), assistant directors Taylor Anderson, Madison Melchert and Ben Van Wyk, program and art coordinator Heidi Reed, business manager Sherry Tegtmeier, softball officials liason Cathy Creighton and the rest of the staff of workers, interns and volunteers are the heart and soul of the IGHSAU.

Fort Dodge Parks and Recreation commission members are Michael Payne (chair), Mark Campbell (vice chair), Josh Calvert, Mary Jo Kirby, Sara Horn and Nik Moser.

THE UMPIRES: We want to take the time to thank and recognize all of the umpires who are logging long hours this week at state as well.

Mark Amadeo, Mike Bell, Paul Bird, Jerry Bowhay, Tom Burger, Mike Christner, Ryne Christner, Casey Conover, Cam Cooksey, Phil Creese, Todd Donels, Duane Duncan, Daryl Erickson, Mike Fry, Terry Giofreddi, Joe Havenhill, Al Hermsen, Jordan Hill, JD Hoogestraat, Bruce Keizer, Arnie Krukow, Jason Lewis, Randy Link, Shannon McWhirter, Roger Menke, Diedra Mohr, Clayton Nalan, Mark Nalan, Jeff Niehaus, Ed Oliver, Jake Parker, Brian Pearce, Josh Perkins, Mark Schaefer, Stan Schmidt, Tom Schreuers, Mark Shea, Glen Snyder, Tom Sullivan, Raun Taylor, Tony Vandegriff, Mike Watkins, Gary Wax, Shane Weigel and Karl Wooldridge are on the call this week at Rogers Park.

HALL CALL: 2023 IGHSAU Softball Hall of Fame inductees include Amanda Zust, Jay Hutcheson, Linda Mosch and Chloe Miller. Lisbon’s Bob Bunting is the Golden Plaque of Distinction honoree. Former Twin Cedars star Grace Bailey is the Jack North Softball Award recipient.


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