For Blake Utley, the only thing he hopes to change about the Fort Dodge baseball team is himself.
Utley takes over the reins from Matt Elsbecker beginning this summer, as the former leader of the Dodgers starts work as the school’s activities and athletics director.
As a former player, and long-time assistant under Elsbecker, Utley inherits a squad coming off a Class 4A state runner-up finish and program-best 36-win season.
“This group is still very hungry,” said Utley, who is entering his 10th year around the program. “They have high expectations and we are going to get a great measuring stick game (in Carroll Kuemper, who has qualified for state the last three times) right off the bat (tonight).”
Outside of the departure of Elsbecker, the majority of the coaching staff remains intact, as Jordan Miller steps into Utley’s previous role as head varsity assistant. Jamie O’Meara will also coach the varsity, while Aaron Miller (sophomore head coach) and newcomer Nick Vinson (freshman head coach) lead their respective units.
“I wouldn’t trade my coaching staff for anybody in the state,” Utley said. “They are all experienced and passionate about teaching the game the right way. I feel very luck and very fortunate to have them.”
It all starts on the hill for the Dodgers, as Tyler Vaughn returns to anchor the staff.
The senior all-stater, who will follow several former FDSH standouts and attend Iowa Central in the fall, went 10-1 with a 2.31 earned run average and 57 strikeouts in just under 67 innings last year.
“Tyler is going to get the ball in game one and we are going to lean on him,” Utley said. “When he’s not pitching, he’ll be playing first base, as he is also an excellent defender.”
Vaughn walked just 12 batters last summer, as Fort Dodge allowed only a team-total of 92 free passes compared to 221 strikeouts.
Looking to fill the voids left by Will Gormally, Luke Vandermaten and Nathan Matthes will be JC Hatcher, Kole Kampen, Andrew Stover and Keegan Gormally.
Hatcher has the most experience – other than Vaughn – coming back, having racked up 46-plus innings and a 6-0 record. The junior recorded 25 strikeouts and allowed opposing hitters to bat just .162 off him. He also won Fort Dodge’s state semifinal game last season.
Keegan Gormally, the younger brother of Will, had four starts and pitched 21 innings in 2012, going 2-1 with 15 strikeouts and just three walks.
Stover worked nine-plus innings and made one start, while Halligan went 1-0. Kampen also earned a win as an eighth-grader on the mound.
“JC is our No. 2, while Keegan, Andrew and Kole are all next in line,” Utley said. “I’m not sure we have the rotation down pat yet, but I feel confident sending any of them to the mound.”
Sam Edwards exhausted his eligibility, leaving a hole in the middle of the lineup and at first base.
Edwards, Will Gormally and Vandermaten were the 1-2-3 hitters in the state championship contest. Edwards batted .300 with a team-high 40 RBI and was one of four players to start every game last year.
Manning first base this season will be Parker Van Zyl, who saw action in five games last year.
Vandermaten was the regular shortstop, which will now be filled by either Hatcher or Stover, as Utley is unsure who will play second and who will take over a short. He had a .403 average and 21 RBI.
Hatcher hit .364 with 14 walks and 10 sacrifices last year, while also driving in 22 runs and scoring 24 times. Stover scored 15 runs and drove in five more.
Harms returns behind the plate, as the senior batted .383 with an on-base of .450 last year. He had 21 RBI and 19 runs scored, and even stole four bases.
Tommy Halligan, a senior who played all 44 games last year, returns at third. He hit .370 with 25 RBI and nine steals a season ago.
“We are going to rely on the defense early, as – like most teams – the spring did not afford us much hitting practice against live pitching,” Utley said. “The biggest thing for us is, can we execute. Can we get a runner on third home? Can we lay down a bunt?
“As the season goes, I think our guys will understand why we preach those little things, because it’s often the difference between winning and losing.”
Brandon Archibald and Cory Alexander are also viewed as “utility infielders, and even outfielders, who will help us out a great deal,” Utley said.
Along with his duties on the hill and his team-leading average (.443), slugging percentage (.650), on-base (.524), steals (10) and runs scored (41), Gormally also patrolled much of the outfield grass.
Isaac Lehman has also graduated after helping track down flyballs last year, taking his 25 RBI and six doubles with him. He was also one of six players with 40-plus hits.
Austin Halligan returns, taking over in centerfield after collecting 31 runs and 30 hits as a ninth-grader last year. Nate Sunken and Keegan Gormally will start at the corner outfield spots, with Kampen viewed as the next guy in when a spot is open.
“Kole has really matured from last year,” Utley said. “Nate and Keegan each saw at-bats (a season ago) and will be counted on for even more (this year).”