Dodgers play for state bid

ANKENY – Payback will clearly be on the minds of the Fort Dodge baseball team once again tonight.

In a rematch of last year’s state title game, the Dodgers (27-14 overall) are set to take on top-ranked Ankeny (33-7) in a Class 4A, Substate 2 final.

First pitch is set for 7 p.m.

Earlier this season, FDSH dropped both ends of a home twinbill to the Hawks by scores of 9-3 and 10-2. A year ago in the championship, the Dodgers were blanked in a 10-0 final.

“It’s obviously a big one, but it’s still a baseball game,” Fort Dodge head coach Blake Utley said. “We’ve talked all year about how we hope to be playing our best baseball at the end of the season, which is what we’ve been able to do.

“We’ve definitely prepared for the (Hawks), but more than anything, we need to take care of ourselves and make sure our seven seniors can go out on a high note.”

Following five straight setbacks, the Dodgers have reeled off six consecutive victories, including tournament wins against Mason City (4-2) and Waukee (5-3).

Sophomore Austin Halligan (.392 BA, 51 H, 41 R), senior Keegan Gormally (.392, 40 H, 32 R) and classmate Tommy Halligan (.389, 44 H, 26 RBI) are the top offensive performers for FDSH, which is batting .336 as a team with 50 stolen bases and a .423 on-base percentage.

On the mound, the Dodgers sport a combined 3.59 ERA, while holding opponents to a .270 batting average. Senior ace and Iowa Central recruit Tyler Vaughn (7-4; 69 IP, 80 H, 64 K, 2.64 ERA) appears to be the most likely option to receive the starting nod this evening for Fort Dodge. Vaughn suffered a loss to Ankeny in the nightcap of their previous meeting back on June 26 at Ed McNeil Field.

“(Ankeny) is the same team as they’ve been all year,” said Utley. “They have good pitching, good hitting and some very well-known Div. I prospects. At the same time, it’s not an unbeatable team. It’s going to be a very similar situation to Waukee (FDSH was also swept at Waukee on June 19) in that we just made some mistakes that gave (the Hawks) the edge that day.”

Senior Tanner Buenting (.411, 51 H, 46 R), junior and University of Arkansas commit Keaton McKinney (.398, 47 H, 38 RBI) and junior Brent Jones (.358, 49 H, 38 RBI) power the balanced Ankeny attack. As a team, the Hawks are hitting .326 and rank third in 4A and fourth in the state in home runs (27).

Matt Johnson (6-0; 49 2/3 IP, 40 H, 52 K, 1.83 ERA) and McKinney (7-0; 46 2/3 IP, 27 H, 54 K, 0.45 ERA) anchor the formidable Ankeny pitching staff, which owns a miniscule 1.80 ERA with 319 strikeouts in 280 1/3 innings of work. Johnson went the distance against the Dodgers in their last encounter, surrendering five hits and two earned runs. He walked one and fanned three. Johnson also picked up a complete game victory in the 2012 state finals.

“I’m expecting (the Hawks) to throw someone we probably haven’t seen yet this year like McKinney or (Nick) Belzer,” Utley said. “It should be an extremely fun night. Hopefully, our community will come down and support us again.”

Ankeny has prevailed in nine of its past 10 outings and 15 of 17 overall.

State action in 4A begins July 31 at Principal Park in Des Moines.