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NIGHT TO REMEMBER

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Fort Dodge head coach Matt Miller addresses his team following Friday's win over Marshalltown. For more photos, please visit CU.messengernews.net

On a night defined by arguably the biggest victory of his career, Fort Dodge’s Matt Miller stayed true to form Friday in reminding his program that the game of football will always be about so much more.

The Dodgers clinched a Class 4A playoff berth with a 21-17 triumph over Marshalltown, making Miller the winningest head coach in the 110-plus year history of the program. And yet, in the midst of an emotional celebration for both the accomplishments of the team in 2019 and their leader over the course of a long career at FDSH, Miller talked almost exclusively about his support staff — the players, the coaches and the community — rather than treating it as his finest personal hour.

“I know it sounds funny saying this now, but this really isn’t about wins and losses,” a teary-eyed Miller almost whispered in the locker room between hugs and personal words exchanged with many of his athletes. “Sam (Moser, Miller’s Hall of Fame predecessor) taught me a long time ago that it’s about building relationships and trust with these kids, year after year, and surrounding yourself with good people. I think that’s what I’m most proud of at this point: I have a staff with a lot of former Dodger players who have bought into the message we’re sending, and a lot of young men who have done the same.

“It’s a bottom-line sport. I get it. You have to be successful or you’re out of a job, no matter what level you’re talking about. But I truly believe success will come if you establish a mutual respect first. Like Sam used to say, ‘we may not be the biggest, the strongest or the fastest in Fort Dodge, but we’re going to be tough and we’re going to give each other everything we have.’ In football, that goes a long way in (determining) your fate. Coaches and players have to be there for each other above everything else.”

Miller, who is now 75-78 overall in 16 seasons at the helm, sheepishly shrugs off passing Dodger legend Forrest Marquis for the top spot on the list. Marquis went 74-36-3 from 1942-54 — a win percentage no coach has come close to experiencing since.

Given Fort Dodge’s size and logical place in the 4A grid landscape, though, there are reasons to laud Miller’s achievements in the modern era among the CIML giants. The Dodgers are 58-48 since 2009, which includes a 25-6 record against the program’s main rivals: Mason City (11-0), Ames (7-2) and the Bobcats (7-4).

FDSH’s 51-45 mark this decade is the best stretch of Dodger football in 70 years. The school has six or more victories six times since 2009, after reaching that mark on only six occasions total between 1985 and 2008.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have continuity on my staff,” Miller said, again deflecting and dispersing the attention when pressed to explain Fort Dodge’s most recent stretch of success. “When you look around at schools our size, or even in general, you just don’t see that kind of stability in this sport anymore. To have very little movement and such loyalty from my assistants is where it all starts.

“We’ve been lucky to have a lot of really good football players and great kids come through our program as well. The talent obviously helps, but it has to be more than that. I think (Friday) was a perfect example of a situation where even when we weren’t at our best execution-wise, there was no finger-pointing or individual credit and blame going around. We’re in this thing together, which is the only way you make it work in this sport.”

The Dodgers sputtered to a season-low 191 yards of total offense — their lowest single-game output since 2016 — but forced five turnovers and surrendered just 76 yards on the ground. Senior linebacker Shane Halligan gave a ubiquitous performance in his final performance on his home turf, returning an interception 26 yards for a touchdown, recovering a fumble and recording a sack.

“We’re a senior-led team, and a lot of us were on the field for last year’s (7-2 playoff run),” said Halligan, the squad’s leader in fumble recoveries at four this season. “We know what it takes, but we also know how hard it is to get back. Going to the playoffs (in consecutive campaigns) doesn’t happen around here very often, and we don’t take it for granted. We have the experience and the confidence to play fast but in control.”

With junior all-state running back Dayson Clayton shelved again and in street clothes for most of the contest after re-injuring his ankle, Fort Dodge turned mostly to quarterback keepers by Asle Thorson. The senior carried the ball 28 times for 95 yards, while completing 11 passes for 94 more.

“Our offense was struggling, especially when we got into their territory,” Miller said, referring mostly to a pair of touchdowns that were wiped out by penalties and later produced zero points. “But when we had to pick up a few first downs late (three of the Dodgers’ seven chain-movers in the second half were on the final drive), Asle and the offensive line got the job done.

“The defense really picked things up when we needed a stop, which they’ve done all year long. Shane Halligan, Bryson Opande, Austin Lee, Jace Ulrich, Asle Thorson, Levi Egli … we had so many guys step up at different moments in the game. But this isn’t about offense versus defense or comparing one position to another — it’s about finishing side by side.”

Thorson, also an all-district safety, returned an interception 68 yards late in the second quarter to set up a Jon Presswood score with Fort Dodge leading only 8-3. Halligan’s fumble recovery came in the red zone to spark the possession that finally got the Dodgers on the board on the previous second-period drive.

Brycen Bell also picked off a pass, and Dalton Summers recovered a fumble. Fort Dodge has now forced 32 turnovers on the season — the second-most in program history, behind only the 2009 unit (34).

Miller was presented a game ball by the players and coaches afterward, minutes after a failed attempt at giving him a Gatorade shower. Following pictures with his family — including his wife, Staci; son, Drake; and daughter, Tehya — he made his way to the locker room and dove head-first into a rowdy celebration before ducking out and being congratulated individually by a number of his athletes.

“He didn’t want to make this about him at all, but we wanted to do this for him. We knew where he stood,” Halligan admitted. “We all know how much he’s meant to us and this community. Fort Dodge is a football town, and we’ve made football big here again. It’s a great feeling to have it all happen in our last game at Dodger Stadium, with the playoffs and Coach Miller’s big win.”

Miller joined Moser’s staff in the late-1980s. He was an assistant on the 1989, 1990, 1993 and 1994 postseason teams, and has been the head coach for traditional playoff berths in 2005, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2018, and now this season.

“I love this community, and I feel like — after all these years — I’m a Dodger at heart, even if I’m not from here (originally),” Miller said. “I get what Fort Dodge is about, and it’s become a part of me. I’m just so proud of everyone who has been involved in making this happen here, building a culture and that special bond.”