High expectations for FDSH baseball

After falling just one step short of another state bid last season, the Fort Dodge baseball team will be playing with a heavy chip on its shoulder in 2014.

A year ago, the Dodgers posted a 27-15 overall mark. FDSH also went 8-4 in the CIC Northern Division en route to winning its third outright conference title in the past five summers.

Since 2005, Fort Dodge has made five trips to Des Moines, including a Class 4A runner-up effort in 2012. The Dodgers have accumulated at least 25 victories in nine consecutive seasons.

“Our expectations are high every year,” said Dodger second-year head coach Blake Utley, who is entering his 11th season around the program “We always want to qualify for the state baseball tournament, and once we get there anything can happen. (Former Fort Dodge baseball coach and current athletics and activities director) Matt (Elsbecker) did a great job of not only coaching but showing me how to handle the game. I definitely felt confident before, but I’m even more confident now after handling a lot of situations last year.”

Junior Austin Halligan and senior JC Hatcher both return to the Dodger lineup after earning spots on the all-CIC Northern Division top squad in 2013. Senior Cory Alexander and sophomore Kole Kampen were each named to the all-conference second team last season, while senior Andrew Stover received honorable mention status. Halligan also landed on the 4A all-state third squad.

“Looking back now at last year, I think we got in kind of a lull towards the end of June and the beginning of July,” Utley said. “Part of that comes back to me, too, in that I need to realize when we’re tired or fresh. We rallied a little bit late in the season with a sweep of Urbandale that carried right over into the substate games. We gave Ankeny and the best pitcher (University of Arkansas recruit Keaton McKinney) we faced everything we had, but it all came down to who made the first big mistake defensively (the Dodgers were ousted by the Hawks in a 1-0 substate final decision).”

Filling the void left by the departure of Tyler Vaughn, Tommy Halligan, Devon Harms, Keegan Gormally, Parker Van Zyl, Nate Sunken and Eric Puls will be no easy task for Utley. Vaughn, Halligan, Harms and Gormally were each all-conference picks in their senior campaigns, while Van Zyl garnered honorable mention honors.

“It’s always important to be successful right away in the season, but at the same time, we want to be playing our best baseball in July,” said Utley. “We like to use the first week as a measuring stick to see where we’re at. I feel like we have some good competition at different spots.”

Pitching

Hatcher, Stover and Alexander will anchor the front end of the Dodger rotation.

As a junior, Hatcher was 6-3 in 52 1/3 innings with 47 strikeouts and a 3.61 ERA. The Iowa Central signee owns a 13-3 career record on the mound with one save. Hatcher was an all-CIC Northern Division basketball first-team selection the past two winters.

“This will be JC’s first year in the driver’s seat as our No. 1 pitcher, so we just have to see how he comes out of the gates,” Utley said. “We’ve had many talks with him about how we probably go how he goes. It’s time for him to control the pace of the game.”

Stover, another Iowa Central recruit, went 3-2 over 29 2/3 innings with a 3.78 ERA. Stover is a three-time state doubles qualifier in tennis. He also was picked to the 4A-2 all-division second team in football this past fall at quarterback.

“Andrew is another guy that has stepped up quite a bit,” said Utley. “He’s looked really good in the offseason and some spring games by being able to locate his pitches.”

Alexander will see his workload increase after throwing only six innings as a junior.

“With Kole down with an injury for awhile, Cory’s pushing for that No. 3 spot,” Utley said. “He has a very good breaking ball and decent speed on his fastball.”

Sophomore Sam Kolacia, junior Drew Hansen and senior Brandon Archibald will also be counted on at various points.

“I think our No. 1 challenge will be our depth of pitching,” said Utley. “We’d like to see our team ERA around 2.5 or 3.0. If we can get down below that range, I think offensively we should be able to outscore most teams.”

Infield

Cainen Hiracheta, a sophomore, is penciled in behind the dish. Junior Lance Williamson will serve as the primary backup.

“Cainen is coming off a great year at the sophomore level, and he probably would’ve got some varsity time before if it wasn’t for Devon Harms,” said Utley. “We have some extremely high expectations for Cainen to hopefully be the best catcher in our program and the conference.”

Taking over at first base will be junior Thomas Hartley, who played in just one varsity game a year ago.

“Thomas has kind of earned the spot right now,” Utley said. “Andrew could also slide over and play first when he’s not pitching.”

Alexander will handle the regular duties again at second base after batting .343 with 47 hits, 31 runs and 27 RBI in 39 starts last season.

“Cory’s coming off a great year, but he’s expecting even more out of himself as we do,” said Utley.

Covering the hot corner will likely be Archibald. During his junior campaign, Archibald was 1-for-4 offensively with a RBI and run scored.

“Archibald will probably get the nod to start the season,” Utley said. “(Sophomore) Johnny Bice is fighting for time as well.”

Hatcher is back at shortstop following a year in which he held a .367 average at the plate with 51 hits, a team-high 34 RBI and 24 runs.

“JC and Andrew are really battling at shortstop,” said Utley. “They should provide a nice rotation for us there.”

Outfield

Senior Gunnar Conrad (left), Halligan (center) and Hansen (right) will occupy these positions.

In seven games last year, Conrad scored six runs.

“Gunnar has busted his tail for the program for five years, and now he has an opportunity to win a spot,” Utley said.

Halligan paced the Dodgers in hits (51), runs (41) and stolen bases (18) out of the leadoff spot in the order, while batting 3.86 with 22 RBI as a sophomore. He went the whole season without committing an error in center.

“Austin has been our starting center fielder for the past two seasons,” said Utley. “He’s definitely a lot stronger now. We’re looking forward to him being a spark at the top of our lineup.”

Hansen was 1-for-2 in his lone plate appearances in 2013.

“Drew has looked pretty darn good in the outfield after throwing him out there,” Utley said. “All of our outfielders can run balls down. The biggest thing is who will be able to produce offensively.”

Others in the mix are Kampen, sophomore Sam Cook and junior Spencer Barber. Kampen compiled a .254 average with 18 hits, 18 runs and 15 RBI a year ago. Cook and Barber combined for 13 runs scored in 21 games.

Conference Outlook

Utley knows his Dodgers will be tested each time out in the CIC. Ames (21-17 overall, 7-5 in the league), Marshalltown (17-25, 6-6) and Mason City (16-25, 3-9) round out the Northern Division.

“I think Ames is probably the favorite. They didn’t lose much, and they played really well at the end of last season,” said Utley. “Mason City has some good pitching coming back, and you never know what to expect from Marshalltown.

“The fun thing about coaching in our division is that all the teams do things the right way. You can’t just show up and exepect win.”

Coaching Staff

Assisting Utley are Jordan Miller (varsity), Jaime O’Meara (varsity), Aaron Miller (sophomore), Nick Vinson (freshman), Jerry Ellendson (freshman assistant).