STORM LAKE - It took the Fort Dodge girls basketball team a while to calm their nerves and harness the energy that came with their first regional final appearance in eight years here Tuesday.
Once the Dodgers settled in and settled down, they were more than just another opponent for second-ranked and defending Class 4A champion Sioux City Heelan. A 25-point halftime deficit was simply too much to overcome, though, and FDSH bowed out by a 74-53 final inside the Storm Lake High School gym.
Head coach Scott Timmerman's squad finishes its season with an 11-12 overall record - a far cry from the last two years, when the Dodgers went a combined 3-39. And they didn't go away quietly last night, despite being blitzed by the experienced Crusaders (20-3) in the first two periods.
With five minutes left in the ballgame, Fort Dodge had climbed within 64-51 on a 16-4 run. That forced Heelan to take a timeout and shift into a more time-consuming offense than the breakneck, full-court style they had displayed over the first three-plus quarters.
The conservative gameplan worked, as the Dodgers' gas tank hit empty during a four-minute lull down the stretch that allowed the Crusaders to finally wiggle free and advance to the state tournament for the eighth time in the last nine seasons.
''I think we really showed the growth of our program in that second half (when Fort Dodge outscored Heelan 33-29),'' Timmerman said. ''Unfortunately, we were also new to this kind of atmosphere and environment early - and it came against a program that makes getting to state look routine.
''Our emotions were running high, and I could see some nerves in pregame. We've come a long way, but you can't simulate something like this. You have to go through it and take the bad with the good, then use everything you learned for the next time. So we have plenty to look back on, and a lot of things from that second half especially to remember.''
Senior Tiana Mericle led the Dodgers with 16 points despite tweaking her ankle in warm-ups. Junior Mallory Kilian and sophomore Madi Bennett added nine points each for Fort Dodge, which had eliminated Storm Lake and Algona to get to this point.
Trailing 50-24 midway through the third period, the Dodgers began to show signs of life. Junior Lani Van Zyl - the team's leading scorer on the season - drained her first three-pointer of the contest, and buckets from Mericle and Kilian capped an 11-2 spurt that made it 52-35. Heelan tallied the final eight points of the quarter, though, to go back up by 25.
Bennett swished a trifecta of triples in a 69-second flurry to begin the fourth. Kilian joined the three-point barrage moments later, and a field goal by Mericle and two free throws from Van Zyl drew Fort Dodge within 13 for the first time since the 1:33 mark in the first quarter. The Dodger crowd rose to its feet as Heelan stopped play to regroup.
The Crusaders held the ball for two full minutes after the timeout, and Megan Todd converted a traditional three-point play to get them back on track. The Dodgers didn't score again until senior Rachel Herrington's layup with 33 seconds remaining on the clock.
''(The rally) took a lot out of us,'' Timmerman said. ''Trying to come back from 25 down against an opponent of this caliber is an awfully deep hole to try and dig out of, but our girls didn't quit and showed tremendous determination.''
Senior guard Jenna Bork, a third team all-state guard last year, led Heelan with 24 points. Bork made five treys and was 7 of 9 at the free throw line.
Todd added 17 for the Crusaders, who cooled down and made only 8 of 29 field goal attempts in the second half after converting on 50 percent of their shots before the intermission. Fort Dodge had just seven turnovers following the break, compared to 18 in the opening frame.
Mericle, Herrington, Ashley Altman, Lexi Astor and Kari Grindberg suited up for the final time as Dodgers on Tuesday.
''There are so many things these girls can take away from this game, this season and their careers that will help them later in life,'' Timmerman said. ''I'm happy that they were able to experience some success record-wise after what they went through (the last two years). I am very proud of them.''
SIOUX CITY HEELAN 74, FORT DODGE 53
Sioux City Heelan - Jenna Bork 6-13 7-9 24, Megan Todd 7-13 1-1 17, Grace Hanno 5-11 0-0 10, Tristan Beaulieu 2-10 2-2 6, Kylee Hickman 1-3 0-0 3, Bailey Heaton 2-6 4-4 9, Taylor Beaulieu 1-2 2-3 4, Kierrah Quincy 0-0 1-2 1, Jessica Brown 0-2 0-0 0, Rhea Greer 0-1 0-0 0, Taylor Ferguson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 24-61 17-21 74.
Fort Dodge - Tiana Mericle 8-10 0-1 16, Mallory Kilian 2-6 4-8 9, Madi Bennett 3-7 0-0 9, Lani Van Zyl 1-3 4-4 7, Ashley Altman 2-11 2-4 7, Lexi Astor 1-1 1-2 3, Rachel Herrington 1-1 0-0 2, Justice Crooks 0-4 0-0 0, Kari Grindberg 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 18-44 11-19 53.
Quarter scores: Heelan led 23-10, 45-20, 60-35. Three-point goals: Heelan 9-21 (Bork 5-10, Todd 2-5, Hickman 1-2, Heaton 1-2, Greer 0-1, Brown 0-1); Fort Dodge 6-15 (Bennett 3-5, Kilian 1-4, Van Zyl 1-3, Altman 1-2, Crooks 0-1). Turnovers: Heelan 10, Fort Dodge 25. Total fouls: Heelan 15, Fort Dodge 19.