BY ETHAN LILLARD
FORT MADISON – As the numbers of students playing organized sports appears to be shrinking, open enrollment taking it’s toll on almost every school, and school budgets get squeezed, shared programs are almost a must at most high schools in Iowa.
Fort Madison and Holy Trinity Catholic use to share few programs, but fast forward to present day where the two have many consolidated programs and so far it is paying dividends.
The schools currently have cooperative agreements in place in most sports with the exception of soccer, basketball, volleyball, and boys cross country.
All the other sports have both HTC and Fort Madison athletes playing under the Bloodhound mascot. The Bloodhound tennis team has three players go to state this spring… all three from HTC. A 4×100 boys track team that just missed going to state by less than a second was a mix of Crusaders and Bloodhounds.
And this year’s Bloodhound baseball team is playing .500 ball after bringing HTC ball players after the Crusaders didn’t have enough to field a squad this year.
Niether the Bloodhounds nor the Crusaders have had a winning season in a decade plus. But just eight games into the season the effects of the consolidation can already be felt, as the Bloodhounds currently sit at 4-4. Last season Fort Madison won a total of five games, while Holy Trinity Catholic set a school record with seven wins.
While a 4-4 record may not appear to be anything special on the surface, to the players on the Bloodhounds’ roster it is a measuring stick. A measuring stick that shows how far they have already come and just how much progress they have already made this season.
“I think it’s really cool,” Holy Trinity Catholic’s Reed Fehseke said. “Neither team was good last year. The step we’ve taken from last year to this year is huge from what both programs were. I think it’s cool to see how much better we are.”
So far the transition has been relatively smooth. According to Fort Madison’s Dayne Cordray, this can be contributed to the fact that many of the players on this season’s team have played traveling baseball together when they were younger, placing at state every year.
“We played travel ball together from like 10 to 13 so we all kind of meshed well,” Cordray said. “We all got the team back together and I think there’s bigger things to come now that we’re back together.”
While the consolidation has brought about plenty of change, with first-year Head Coach Ron Walker at the helm and with this also being the first year for the convergence, many of the players feel they are starting with a blank slate.
“(It’s a) Brand new slate,” Fort Madison junior Brandon Reichelt said. “We have a different approach coming to the plate. (Coach Walker) knows what he’s talking about and he makes all of us trust him. Everything he says we can trust him and that obviously shows with our record.”
Fort Madison senior captain Jordyn Gerdes agrees one of the biggest changes he has seen in the Hounds is the new found approach at the plate.
“The big part is our approach with hitting,” Gerdes said. “Last year we didn’t really practice an approach, we just practiced swinging … Practice wise I think there’s more passion, it’s more intense, it makes you want to practice and get better.”
In terms of the HTC’s players view on how things have changed, a lot of it is how engaged the team is daily on polishing up the fundamentals and getting back to the basics.
“The rules are a little more strict this year,” Vasin Thurman said. “A lot more working on the fundamentals to get those down so that we’re not making the little mistakes.”
Those little mistakes still lure their heads from time to time, but Gerdes says he has already noticed a marginal improvement on how well the team has cleaned up its fielding since last season.
“I just feel like we’re making the routine plays,” Gerdes said. “Jason Thurman has been doing a great job at shortstop. We have Vasin at first since Brandon has been sick. We just have people to fill those roles when somebody is injured or sick. We actually have people that we can trust to go out there and make the routine plays.”
With so many first and so many new changes with the program, one thing still remains the same, everyone on the Bloodhound roster plays for the Fort Madison community as a whole. That’s something Walker hopes his players keep in mind.
“At the end of the day, we’re still a Fort Madison community, we’re all from the same public area, the kids have grown up together, they go to the swimming pool together, they grow up playing backyard baseball, ” Walker said.
“I think it’s a great fit all of us. Numbers have been down in both programs. It’s kind of a kick start for all of us to put a shot in the arm and put a boost in the program.”
So far the stats have’t lied, the Bloodhounds are on the rise. Fort Madison is just one win away from matching last season’s win total. Along with the wins, what may have been one of the most eye opening experiences in the early stages of the season was how well the Hounds played when they split a doubleheader on the road against Mount Pleasant.
“That was something really huge for the kids,” Walker said. “On the bus ride home we talked about in the four games combined last year I think Mount Pleasant outscored them 53-1. To come out and take a 3-2 loss and then a 5-2 win, it just says, ‘Hey, we’re here. This is legit and we’re going to keep getting better and win some ball games this year.’”
Wins are nice and should continue to come as the year comes along, but the main goal at the end of the season for Walker in year one is for his guys to believe in themselves.
“By the end of the season I hope the kids believe in themselves,” Walker said. “We talk every day about us as coaches and them as players, we have the same job. My job is to get the players to trust in me and their job is to get me to trust in them and if we trust in each other, by the end of the year my goal is when we take the field, no matter who we’re playing, I want us to be competitive.”