I’ve been fortunate in my time at the News Advertiser to be a part of the coverage team of three Creston/O-M wrestling state championships (traditional tourney in 2007 and 2016, dual tourney in 2007) and a boys golf championship in 2013.
Also, there were state championships won by teams from Lenox, Nodaway Valley and Mount Ayr. And, a handful of state runner-up finishes, including Creston being one (uncalled) third strike from a state baseball title in 1990, when the Panthers were so sure it was a strike they were starting to run out of the dugout to celebrate.
But, the first team state title I got to be a part of was that incredible 1996-97 Creston boys basketball team, which averaged 81.2 points per game, including all state tournament games.
That’s why it was so much fun to have the primary coverage duties Saturday of the team’s 20-year reunion reception in the library and the halftime recognition ceremony. I appreciate Kaleb Carter of our staff handling the video duties while I took photos and chased down interviews.
It was a little hectic making sure I got to all of the players in attendance for at least a short conversation, but it was so fun to reminisce with them. Heck, I wasn’t quite 40 years old when I helped cover their team, so there’s been a lot of water under the bridge in that time!
Our boys were 11 and 8 years old and they looked up to those Panthers. I remember Ben Gerleman lifting Keith up on his shoulders in that giddy celebration at Southeast Polk a year earlier after the Panthers rallied from 19 points down with under seven minutes to play to beat Pella in the substate final.
One year later, Creston buried Nevada early in a substate game at West Des Moines Valley High School and the celebration was more muted. But, on the Saturday night of the state tournament, Panther fans set a new standard for loyal support by taking over Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
Mason City followed by winning its second straight 4A title, led by guard Dean Oliver, a Hawkeye recruit. Brian Bucklin said Saturday the team talked at the time about calling Mason City and asking the Mohawks to meet them somewhere in between for an “unofficial” overall state championship.
“We really believed we were the best basketball team in the state that year, and we would have loved a chance to prove it,” said Bucklin, a sophomore on that squad.
Bucklin, who played baseball at Iowa, was one of seven eventual college athletes on that Panther squad, including three Division I athletes. Kyle McCann played football at Iowa and Eric Owens played football at Southwest Missouri State, now known as Missouri State.
Ben Gerleman won an NAIA national basketball championship his senior year at Northwestern College in Orange City, and later coached a state championship at George-Little Rock in 2006 and a runner-up finish in 2008.
He preaches defense now to his Central Lyon team in the rugged northwest Iowa competition, but when asked about his high school team, it’s a different story.
“We knew we were going to score 80 points every night,” Gerleman said. “Heck, Kyle could drop in 30 and you barely knew he was out there. It’s pretty tough for the other team when they know they have to score 80 to have a chance.”
At the KMA Sports Hall of Fame ceremony, coach Mike Gerleman thanked a lot of people, including current coach Taylor Phipps for putting the program together. But, after talking to the players, I got the idea that the Atlantic team of 1996-97 should also be thanked.
They delivered a wake-up call.
Early in the season Atlantic won an overtime game in Creston, 83-77, when the Panthers were ranked No. 1 in Class 3A.
It sparked another level of performance and there wasn’t a game that was close in the fourth quarter the rest of the season. That included an 88-66 drubbing of the Trojans in the return engagement later that season.
“I remember late in that game, we ran a set play to get it to Kyle for a dunk and it kind of sealed the deal,” Todd Stalker said. “It told them, you know what, we’re a lot better than you are. That (loss) should have never happened.”
The week after that defeat was boot camp under coaches Gerleman, Vic Belger and Matt Somers. Especially when the JV ripped through the varsity’s press a few times during Monday’s practice.
“I firmly believe today that we don’t win the championship if we don’t lose that game,” said Cory Gerleman, one of those sophomore JV players. “That following week was the most intense week of practice I experienced in my four-year career of high school sports. When our scout team was breaking their press and scoring buckets on that first day back, I remember coach Belger letting those starters know that if you don’t pick it up, it’s going to happen again. Everything was dialed up to 11 at that point, and that was to the detriment of our health.”
Those sophomores felt the thud of the 260-pound Owens setting harder screens. Same with Jeff Finn, Conor Reed and Nick Nevins, big upperclass post players. McCann and Gerleman, swarming guards standing 6-6 and 6-4 respectively, made the traps extra tight. Quick guard Brady Steenhoek, who had four steals in the championship game, was the Energizer bunny out there, igniting fast breaks.
“When the starters took it up a notch, we weren’t breaking the press anymore,” recalled Scott Jackson, then a junior. “That loss lit a fire under us to push us through the rest of the season.”
Creston’s junior varsity also lost just one game that year, so the starters had decent competition in practice every day.
“That was a very close group and they had fun together, but when it was time for a game or practice, it was all business,” said coach Gerleman.
It’s difficult to describe just how entertaining those games were. And the sportsmanship award was icing on the cake. A great tribute to the loyal support of the school’s cheerleaders, pep band and many fans who traveled the state that winter.
To this day, when I hear Van Halen’s song, “Jump,” I think of those Panthers running onto the court for another dominating performance.
Thanks, guys. We’ll never forget that special season.
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