Dodgers kick off at Sioux City West

SIOUX CITY – If Fort Dodge’s crisp practices recently serve as any indication, head coach Matt Miller believes his football team is more than ready to kick off their season here Friday against Sioux City West.

Varsity start time is set for 7:30 p.m. inside Elwood Olsen Stadium on the campus of Morningside College.

Miller greets the 2014 campaign – his 11th at the helm – with a strong serving of optimism, yet also a dose of curiosity. Eleven starters return at 13 positions for the Dodgers, who were 3-6 overall a year ago. The squad will travel with 17 seniors, 25 juniors and a small handful of active sophomores to take on the Wolverines (2-8 in 2013).

”We’ve had a very encouraging week of preparation,” Miller said. ”Our guys are more than ready to go. Of course you can never tell until the ball is in the air and the first game is under way, but this group has shown good focus and attention to detail so far.

”I always tell our guys that the big things will be there in Week 1. We’ll make plays on both sides of the ball, and I’m sure (West) will, too. It comes down to who takes care of the little things – avoiding self-inflicted penalties, not turning the ball over, working together as a cohesive unit – that makes all the difference, especially this early.”

Miller plans on starting 13 juniors, 10 seniors and one sophomore tonight. Four players – senior Joe Crooks (fullback and linebacker), junior Sam Cook (tailback and linebacker), junior Sam Kolacia (cornerback and split end) and junior Kit McCarville (right tackle and defensive end) will be in the lineup on both sides of the ball.

Crooks, Cook and senior Austin Halligan – a steady three-year pillar who also expects to see the field without much rest – serve as tri-captains for Fort Dodge.

The 210-pound Cook tied a school record with 1,608 rushing yards last fall as just a sophomore. Already in his third year as a starter – Cook played linebacker as a freshman to become the first ninth-grade varsity regular in program history – the third team all-stater will be the focal point of an offense that is breaking in a new quarterback and four fresh offensive linemen.

”I’m looking forward to seeing what Sam can do,” Miller said. ”He’s bigger, faster, stronger – just plain better, which is impressive given what he did (in 2013). Of course we have to develop the quarterback and the line, but they’re coming around quickly and I’m confident in their abilities. We’ll get there.”

Junior Johnny Bice is making his debut as the Dodgers’ signal-caller. McCarville, the lone returning lineman at 250 pounds, will be flanked by newcomers Nick Sanford (220), Jonah Benson-Carvalho (220), Aryone Perry (245) and Austin Gehlhausen (270). There isn’t a senior in the bunch; Gehlhausen is a sophomore, and the rest are juniors.

Fort Dodge’s top three receivers – seniors Spencer Barber, Brian Murman and Halligan – return to help ease the transition as well.

”I’m excited to see this offense develop,” Miller said. ”Sam is obviously the focal point, but Johnny throws a nice ball and we are as deep at receiver as we’ve been in a long time.”

Miller’s defense struggled mightily at times a year ago, yielding 44 or more points in five of their nine games. He thinks the unit will be ”vastly improved” this season, with 2013’s top three tacklers – junior safety Kole Kampen, Halligan and Cook – back as anchors.

Three-year starter Skyler Harris (245) also returns at defensive end, as does defensive tackle Josh Diosdado (280) and linebackers Konner Pirie and Crooks.

”It was kind of a trial by fire for a lot of those guys (in 2013) – especially the sophomores,” Miller said. ”They gained valuable experience, though, and I like what I’m seeing so far. They are bigger, more athletic, and they swarm to the ball.”

Senior Ethan Schwendemann, who made good on 22 of 25 point-after tries and a pair of field goals last season, is again the kicker. Cook (37.2 yard average) will resume his punting duties.

The Wolverines defeated Des Moines Roosevelt and Des Moines East on the road last fall. Third-year head coach Trever Case welcomes back 10 starters, including what Miller described as ”very talented athletes” in captains Noah Mcwell, Colby Hill and Richardo Quintana.

Nine West players are slated to start both offensively and defensively, Miller said. The Wolverines have only eight seniors on their roster, and three sophomores may play both ways.

”They’re pretty thin up front, just like us,” Miller said. ”I know they want to get the ball in the hands of Mcwell, Hill and Quintana as much as possible. They definitely have big-play ability. We have to stay disciplined and contain.

”It’s a good first test for us. This should be a fun night of action.”