Saving the best for last

Collectively speaking, Fort Dodge Senior High’s Class of 2015 could best be described as an athletic enigma before their final year of high school.

There had been injuries. Inconsistency. Struggles. Misfortune.

The Dodger seniors began the season at a proverbial crossroads. Yet from there, they took the route of a champion.

Cray Washington’s 100-meter dash victory at the state track meet on Saturday bumped the gold medal count to three for the seniors and five overall at FDSH in 2014-15 alone. Impressive, given the school had collected just one state title – David Knight’s 2010 singles medal in boys tennis – over the course of the last decade combined.

Washington’s redemption fit the narrative. Though he was a four-time state qualifier, he had never actually placed in the 100-meter dash – his bread-and-butter event.

In one furious blur and 11.21 wind-challenged seconds later, Washington reversed the field, reached his long-awaited potential, and was a state champ.

Alex Markov was one of four senior bowling regulars who helped Fort Dodge earn its first team title since 1988 in February. Markov captured the state crown individually, joining classmates Drew Hansen, Chase Messerly and Jim Springer at the top of the podium. Just one year earlier, the Dodgers had placed a disappointing seventh.

Even the student-athletes who didn’t finish on top made dramatic strides.

Fort Dodge’s senior football players, led by three-year starter and first team all-district performer Austin Halligan, had never experienced a single winning season on the gridiron prior to last fall. Proving immediately that trend was coming to an end, the seniors built an instant rapport with the junior class and started with a 6-1 record and Top-10 ranking. The sub-.500 streak was over, and the Dodgers qualified for the Class 4A state playoffs in the process.

Senior Alex Jackson – one of four class valedictorians with a 4.0 grade point average – went from 30th at state cross country as a junior to 5th this past fall. Then, in his final go-round at state track, Jackson came through again. He earned the first two medals of his career with 7th and 8th place performances in the 3200 and 1600, respectively.

Rob Leigh graduated from relative unknown to legitimate state 100 butterfly contender as a senior in swimming. Leigh had never medaled or even qualified in the event during his first three seasons as a varsity swimmer. That all changed drastically this past winter, when Leigh shattered the school record in the event and captured bronze at the state meet.

Erik Birnbaum’s best showing at state wrestling had been an 8th-place effort as a junior. This year, he reached the semifinal round and took 5th as the Dodgers brought home their first team trophy on the mat from state since 1996. And the Fort Dodge girls bowling squad – paced by senior Ciara Sturm – transformed from non-qualifier in ’14 to state runner-up in ’15.

There’s more to come, too. The Fort Dodge boys tennis squad – with five seniors in their six-player rotation – defeated three programs they’d lost to in the regular season to clinch a return trip to team state over the weekend. Brian Murman, Caleb Hendrickson, Ben Ahlers, Steve Liao and Leigh anchor the Dodgers, who flipped the script to bounce Ames, West Des Moines Valley and West Des Moines Dowling in consecutive substate fashion.

Murman and classmate Emily Knight are back at state tennis again on the individual side as well.

The Fort Dodge softball team has nine – count ’em, nine – seniors on their roster for a season that begins this week. The Dodgers were rated second in Class 4A a year ago and should receive another Top-5 ranking for 2015 as well in the days to come, despite the fact that they were upset in a regional final last summer.

And on the baseball side, seven seniors are back for Blake Utley’s FDSH squad. The Dodgers were 24-19 overall last season, but also landed one step away from the state tournament.

Could baseball and softball be the last in a long line of shattered stereotypes and suddenly-fulfilled expectations? That certainly seems to be the prevailing theme.

They started their final prep journey in the fall as good students and even better kids. Strong leaders. Well-rounded. Heavily involved and successful in many different activities.

As athletes, though, they were still a bit of a blank slate. That has changed dramatically in one memorable stretch. These seniors redefined their legacy, and they did it the old-fashioned way: the Dodger Way. Quiet and unassuming, yet relentless and unforgiving.

They remained patient, finally forcing their way into the spotlight by walking the walk without wasting a lot of time talking the talk. Their opponents maybe didn’t see this coming, but Fort Dodge’s seniors knew they had it in them all along – and now they have the hardware to prove it.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net