SIOUX CITY - The Fort Dodge football team may look back at their excruciating loss to Sioux City North on Thursday and identify it as a turning point in the developmental process.
For now, though, the Dodgers aren't about to find satisfaction in a moral victory.
The homestanding Stars rose from the ashes on multiple occasions last night, catching, then passing, then holding off Fort Dodge for an entertaining 36-29 victory at Olsen Stadium that left Dodger head coach Matt Miller both beaming with pride and kicking the dirt afterward.
Senior quarterback Daniel Tillo burned Fort Dodge in a different manner compared to a year ago, but the end result was the same. The 6-foot-5 left-hander threw for 436 yards, converting six times on fourth down - including twice on a scoring drive late the Stars (1-1 overall) needed to have - to pull his team away from the jaws of defeat time and time again on the campus of Morningside College.
The Dodgers (1-1) always seemed to be one play away from sealing the deal. But every time they had North on the ropes, Tillo was there to rescue his squad.
"I'm not about to say we aren't frustrated, because we are. Beyond that," Miller said. "Sometimes, though, you have to go through something like this to make you better and bring you closer. This game is so much about how you handle adversity, and whether or not you can learn together in defeat. So we're going to find out what we're made of, as brothers.
"I have a feeling that someday, we'll identify this as a moment that forced us to grow up and get better. But looking at it right now, it hurts and it's a really tough pill and tough loss to swallow. Without question."
Fort Dodge had turned a 15-7 first half deficit into a 29-22 advantage on a grinding 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive with 6:59 remaining in regulation. Miller noted that the Dodgers' go-ahead push came on the shoulders of third-string junior tailback Christion Garnica, junior quarterback Johnny Bice, and an offensive line that starts four juniors and a sophomore.
"To do that tells me a lot about the character and toughness of this squad," Miller said. "It was a 'next man up' situation at that point, and we had guys answering the challenge who hadn't been in this kind of situation before.
"The problem is, when you're trying to close a game out, you have to make plays. That's the bottom line in football. Their senior three-year starter was doing that left and right. We just couldn't close the door on him; he kept kicking it down and refused to lose."
With the Stars desperately needing a touchdown, Tillo made good on a 4th-and-10 and then a 4th-and-goal for what appeared to be the tying score at the 4:03 mark in the fourth quarter. Senior Austin Halligan blocked the Stars' extra-point attempt, however - North's third missed PAT of the evening - and the Dodgers took over, still ahead at 29-28.
Garnica, who rushed 11 times for 55 yards and a TD in the second half, was stripped of the ball on first down after a 12-yard gain to near midfield. Tillo then delivered the dagger, marching North 46 yards in five quick plays to retake the lead with 2:46 to go.
Fort Dodge had one last chance to keep the contest alive, and the Dodgers nearly cashed in. The visitors went from their own 33 yard-line to the North 24, but Bice's last-ditch pass attempt on fourth down was just out of the reach of sophomore Solomon Clayton at the 10-yard line.
"I'm not about to focus on one play or one call," Miller said. "Christion did a terrific job on the previous drive (in relief of senior Taijuan Blair, who was sidelined by cramps). It's all part of the process. You have pockets of plus plays and pockets of plays you'd like to have back. You build from the former and learn from the latter."
Blair rushed 15 times for 85 yards despite missing a significant chunk of the second half. Junior all-state tailback, linebacker and punter Sam Cook suited up but did not see the field due to lingering hip and back trouble.
Bice had 200 yards passing on 12 completions, tossing long touchdown passes to senior Spencer Barber and junior Sam Kolacia. Bice was intercepted twice in the first half, though, and both turnovers led to North scores.
Halligan and Clayton picked off Tillo passes early, while Blair and fellow senior Skyler Harris registered sacks. Tillo had 218 yards in both halves and finished 31 of 47 through the air, but he finished with negative-9 rushing yards on 12 attempts.
Last season, Tillo threw for 460 yards and ran for 202 more in the Stars' win at Dodger Stadium.
"Our defense, for the most part, played very well," Miller said. "We forced a few turnovers, got a good push up front, and only gave up (11 total rushing yards on 23 carries).
"With that being said, you can't give up first downs or touchdowns on 3rd and 15, 3rd and 20, 4th and 18 - those are mental and physical breakdowns we simply have to clean up. Period. You do have to give a veteran guy like Tillo credit for improvising and finding his open receivers under duress, but that still doesn't excuse those kind of breakdowns."
The third quarter couldn't have started much better for the Dodgers, who answered quickly for the go-ahead TD on Bice's strike to Kolacia. The FDSH defense then stuffed the Stars four times after being backed into a 1st and goal corner from the 1-yard line. Halligan batted down a pass to cap the impressive stop.
"We had possessions, both offensively and defensively, that we can point to as moments where we really, clearly found a comfort zone," Miller said. "I love our effort. I love our intensity. But we have to get in better shape and become more consistent with our execution. It will come. I truly believe that."
Miller also didn't pull any punches about having to make a second road trip to Sioux City in six days, saying the state "dropped the ball" on the scheduling conflict.
"Inexcusable," Miller said. "We're over here kicking off at 7:30 on a school night, less than a week after being here (to face Sioux City West). I'm not going to say anything more about it, other than it's extremely disappointing that we were put in this position."
Fort Dodge's home opener is next Friday against Waterloo West. The varsity contest is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. inside Dodger Stadium.