Since I covered him as a player in his father’s baseball program at Creston High School in the late 1980s, it was kind of surreal to be at the “retirement” ceremony Monday night for Scott Belger in his final year as head coach of the Southeast Polk Rams.
Between games of the doubleheader against CIML rival Waukee, the Rams Baseball Club presented an engraved wooden bat to Belger as a gesture of their appreciation for his contributions to the youth club and high school program the past 10 years. That tenure included back-to-back Class 4A state championships in 2014 and 2015.
Several extended family members and a large group of former players were on hand for the ceremony at the Rams ballpark in Pleasant Hill.
The coach described by players during the ceremony as “a straight shooter who doesn’t sugarcoat anything” had a few tears in his eyes after greeting several former Rams players. Even though the sting of losing the first game 2-1 in eight innings was still fresh, Belger’s relationship with those players was obviously a lasting one as he greeted them.
“State championships are great,” Belger said. “But what I really like is the day-to-day interaction with the players, and the practices. We have a good practice environment for learning the game. That is what I will miss the most.”
Belger is only 46 years old. That’s young in the coaching profession. But, as of July 1 he is assistant high school principal. He oversees English language arts, world languages, the alternative school and at-risk programming. He also is responsible for any necessary disciplinary action for a designated group of nearly 1,000 students.
Those are a lot of responsibilities. Too many to have your attention divided by being a head coach.
“I think it’s kind of an unwritten rule,” Belger said. “I can’t be head coach. I’d love to still volunteer and help out in some way, but it would never be a paid position again.”
Among those under consideration as his successor is another Creston native, longtime assistant coach Dave Hartman. When Scott and his brother Kurt were playing for the Panthers, Hartman, now 51, was an assistant for their father, Vic Belger.
Hartman had more than 200 wins as a varsity head coach when he joined Belger at Des Moines Hoover High School in 2003, after Belger had coached Adel-DeSoto-Minburn for three seasons. Among those they coached at Hoover was current Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.
The duo moved together to the Southeast Polk program in 2007 and have been together since. They started the Rams Baseball Club for area youths in 2011.
It’s like a college program, with 31 players in the JV-varsity program and four total coaches, plus two coaches for the sophomore team and two more for the freshman team. This year’s varsity has “only” eight seniors. Last year’s team had 17 seniors.
Hartman handles all of the pitching duties, including when pitchers are replaced in games and who gets the start on a given night. He also serves as third base coach.
“We exchange texts to make sure we’re on the same page for the game, but I leave it all up to him,” Belger said. “Dave has a knack for getting the most out of his players. He coached me in dad’s program. He’s a teacher in our social studies department here at Southeast Polk.”
Since graduating from Culver-Stockton College in 1995 and starting as coach at Savannah, Missouri — where former Creston athletic standout Randy Long was also on staff — Belger has always been a head coach. He has more than 560 wins. After the end of this season, he says it will probably hit him that he’s no longer in charge of a baseball program.
“When you’re in the midst of a season you’re thinking about nothing but the next pitch, or the next game,” Belger said. “It will probably take a month or so for it to sink in. Just like when we won state, we were so focused on the task at hand, it took awhile to sink in.”
His family and parents Vic and Pat, now of Waukee, were on the field with Scott during the ceremony, with the former players off to the side waiting to reconnect with their coach. His wife, Margi (Stephens), is a Mount Ayr native. She is a former Southwestern Community College staff member, but they did not meet until working together at Southeast Polk 10 years ago. They are raising two children, Luke Boord and Alexis Boord.
“The ceremony was really nice,” Scott said after the games. “I don’t really like the attention, but it’s a great gesture and I’m a little overwhelmed by it.”
Now, after 22 years of teaching physical education and coaching, Belger is ready to “reshuffle the deck.” He already served as interim assistant principal and got a feel for his new job during the past school year.
“Bells don’t mean as much to me anymore,” Belger said. “The pace of the day is different. You do not know what is coming next. It’s not the same old routine. I’m still interacting with the kids, it’s just a little different. This will allow me to expand my umbrella and leadership, school-wide.”
After Monday’s doubleheader split with Waukee, the Rams were 20-10 and in a position for a top seed (and home field) in a tough eastern Iowa substate that includes defending state champion Cedar Rapids Prairie. Prairie, Southeast Polk, Ottumwa and Cedar Falls all entered the final week of the seeding period with similar records.
Ironically, another 4A ranked team with hopes of competing in the state tourney is Western Dubuque, coached by another Creston graduate, Casey Bryant.
I told Scott on my way out of the stadium Monday night that I hope we do one more interview together in his role as Rams coach — on the field in Principal Park during another state tournament run.
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