Jamie Marshall made a bold statement when he returned to his alma mater.
Dubuque Wahlert was coming off an 0-9 season the year before Marshall took over, with his grand plan and an even grander goal of building a state championship program.
The Eagles won just three games that first year, then flipped the record around with a 6-3 campaign and a playoff appearance in 2020.
Two seasons later, Wahlert made another giant leap, and reached a tangible milestone on the road toward that elusive state title.
The Golden Eagles — armed with a veteran group of seniors that represent Marshall’s first four-year class — went 7-2 in the regular season, knocked off a couple perennial powers from bigger classifications and reached the state semifinals for the first time since 1991.
“It’s very satisfying to start at a new program, have a vision for it and then four years later you’re so close to completing the cycle of your vision,” said Marshall, the 2022 Telegraph Herald Football Coach of the Year. “I said we can win a state championship my first year, I still believe we can with everything in my heart. It didn’t happen this year, but we certainly showed that we can do that and I think when you come in with a vision and then you have a bunch of freshmen that just see it all the way through as seniors, that’s as satisfying as it comes.”
It’s the second time in three seasons Marshall has been named TH Coach of the Year.
“It can’t happen without great assistants. Those guys have been critical with Coach (Clay) Finley, Coach (Cole) Smith, Coach (Jim Killoran) and Coach (Antonio) Armstrong,” Marshall said. “And then a strong group of families, all the football families and all the players. Things like this, seasons like this don’t happen when a head coach doesn’t have the support he does.”
Wahlert entered the season with high expectations considering it had a core group of players readying for their third varsity season.
But Marshall has a scheduling philosophy that includes early season tests.
So while the Golden Eagles are playing in a 2A district, their three non-district opponents include one of the most dominant programs in recent Iowa football history — from Class 4A, no less — and two Class 3A programs that have long playoff traditions.
The Eagles responded this season, beating West Delaware, 31-14, on the road in the season opener before knocking off Davenport Assumption, 34-21, in their home opener. Class 4A Cedar Rapids Xavier, which won its fourth state championship since 2016, handed Wahlert its first loss, 40-7, in Week 3.
“I don’t know if you really want to schedule all of the three teams that we have on our schedule every year, but I do feel like it’s important to have at least one or two tests in your non-district schedule,” Marshall said. “You want to find out where you are. You want to find out where you’re weak so you can improve on them. I think it’s very important to have a test or two in non-district play so that once you get into district play, the first time you get knocked back isn’t an important game that can decide a district or decide playoff implications.
“We’ll always continue to do that. We want to have a high standard here at Wahlert of playing great football and the only way you can do that is if you go and test yourself.”
It also helps to build a strong culture.
That’s something Marshall brought from his playing days at Wahlert, and something he has going for him now as the head coach.
A 1995 graduate, he played on the Golden Eagles’ 1994 state quarterfinal team. He was a freshman in 1991, the last time before this fall that Wahlert had reached the state semifinals.
“When I look at the team that I played on and look at this team, there is a really, really cool parallel, in the fact that how well the team got along and the culture that they had created,” he said. “I’ve still got friendships from that last team that I played on and we talk all the time. I really feel like this team has created those friendships and I think that’s what high school football is all about.”
It sounds like that’s exactly what has happened.
“Everyone on this team can say confidently that they love every person across from them on the team and they’ll take a bullet for them,” senior Zach Callahan said after the Golden Eagles’ loss to Williamsburg in the state semifinals. “We’re going to pass that on to the other guys and hopefully they can carry that on and bring Wahlert back on top in football.”
Marshall first noticed signs that this could be a special season during summer workouts.
There were more flashes during those first two wins. Then, after the loss to Xavier, the Eagles turned it on.
Wahlert pounded La Porte City Union, 42-7, then routed North Fayette Valley, 48-14, to open district play 2-0. A 28-6 home loss to Waukon cost the Eagles the district championship.
“Now that I think about it, that loss was probably the best thing for us, to be honest with you,” Marshall said. “I did tell our players after that game, we were either going to get better from this point forward or things are going to continue to stay the same.
“I said if we fix everything that needs to get fixed after tonight, in six weeks we’re going to play this team again and it needs to be a different outcome. It didn’t happen as far as playing Waukon, but the guys jumped all over that message and that was pretty cool to see.”
Wahlert outscored its final two regular-season opponents, 134-6, then opened the postseason with a 62-0 thrashing of West Liberty. The Eagles then went on the road to hand West Marshall its first loss of the season, 21-14, and returned home to romp past Crestwood, 41-6, in the quarterfinals and reach the UNI-Dome.
“We had a great year,” Marshall said. “No regrets on my part.”
Now back to work trying to elevate the program to its next step on the way to a state title.