One of the first outstanding overall athletes I covered in Creston was 1986 graduate Casey Bryant.
I got on the football beat just in time to cover Creston’s first-ever playoff game in 1985 at Harlan. Bryant was the quarterback of the team. He was also the point guard on the basketball team and shortstop-pitcher on the baseball team.
Vic Belger was then in his fourth year as head coach for both basketball and baseball at Creston High School. Girls sports were also flourishing then under coaches Eldon Gammell and Mike Gerleman.
So, with that history in mind, it was fun to be in Principal Park last week when Bryant took his Western Dubuque team to the State Baseball Tournament for the fourth time, and first time in Class 4A. And, the first person I spoke to upon entering the stadium was Belger, who works as an usher in Principal Park for the Iowa Cubs.
Also in attendance to congratulate Bryant after the quarterfinal victory over North Scott were former Panthers Ryan Woods, Scott Belger, Kurt Belger, Dave Hartman and Tim Somers. They were all coached by Vic Belger.
Vic took it as a compliment when Bryant referred to him as “the Kirk Ferentz of Creston baseball” for the successful coaching tree that sprouted from some of those amazing Panther teams of the late 1980s and 1990s.
Woods had a long career coaching Ottumwa baseball until getting into administration work at Davis County and now as high school principal in Johnston. Scott Belger won more than 500 games before stepping down at his last stop, Southeast Polk, to also get into administration. Hartman, his longtime assistant who had also been a head coach at three other schools, succeeded Belger at Southeast Polk this year.
Scott Belger and Brian Bucklin became state champion coaches at Southeast Polk and St. James Academy in Lenexa, Kansas, respectively. Woods also coached in the Iowa state tournament.
Bryant’s team lost in the semifinals on Friday to eventual champion Urbandale, which had several players from that 2013 Urbandale team in the Little League World Series.
But, it was fun to reminisce with some of those former Panthers from the glory days. Anyone under the age of 40 might not realize just how special the Creston baseball program was in that era that was just taking off when Bryant was a senior in 1986.
From 1989 through 1993 Creston won five straight Hawkeye Eight Conference titles. (This was before Denison-Schleswig, Carroll Kuemper Catholic and St. Albert Catholic joined the league.)
Those seasons ended in records of 40-4, 39-4, 41-2, 35-6 and 22-7. The years right around that league championship run weren’t bad, either! The 1988 squad finished 31-8 and the 1994 team went 32-7.
The 1990 team finished runner-up in Class 3A, losing a 4-3 heartbreaker to Spencer when the Panthers were one strike away from a 3-2 victory.
Then, Creston was placed in Class 4A for two years. The 1991 team won 41 straight games in finishing 42-2, losing to Des Moines East in a 4A substate final at Urbandale. Kurt Belger pitched a victory over Casey Blake and the Indianola Indians, but Indianola got revenge in tournament play the next year. Blake went on to star at Wichita State before a long major league career.
After Belger won that game in 1991 and stopped a long on-base streak by Blake, he received a nice scholarship offer from the University of Iowa and went on to set a Big Ten record for saves as a pitcher for the Hawkeyes.
Belger won 41 straight decisions in a 51-3 career as a high school pitcher. That’s the second-most consecutive victories in Iowa history behind John Kuester of Norway, who went 51-0 in 1980-83.
Creston was 177-23 during the years that Kurt Belger played. It was not unusual to see him strike out 15 to 17 batters in a game. It was like watching a master artist at work.
Bryant told me last week that coach Belger taught him everything he needed to know about baseball after his arrival when Bryant was a ninth-grader. Creston was 21-10 his senior year, and you could tell the program was starting to take off. Scott and Kurt Belger were batboys for that Panther squad.
Bryant went on to play at the University of Dubuque, and has stayed in that area. His son Ben was a sophomore center fielder on this year’s state tourney team.
Creston only had one official state tournament appearance during that tremendous run, but you have to remember it could have been at least a handful more because only four teams advanced to state. The substate final in those days was the same round as today’s state tournament quarterfinals.
Besides the bad luck of being a tiny 4A team for two years and losing to Des Moines East and Indianola in substate play, there were some other heartbreaks. One year Creston lost to Perry in the substate finals at Slater. Another time Brian O’Connor pitched St. Albert past the Panthers in a substate first-round game in Creston. (There were two substate rounds during a short period of years.) O’Connor, now the coach at Virginia, pitched for Creighton in the College World Series.
Another year, Creston had to travel north all the way to Storm Lake for a substate final and lost to a West Lyon team that had two players who went on to play at Indiana University.
Creston baseball teams went 545-221 under Vic Belger in 21 seasons, culminating in a 26-8 campaign in 2003.
“Vic loved baseball and made sure you took it serious, which I loved because I was gung-ho crazy about baseball,” Bryant said last week. “There have been a lot of good baseball guys come out of Vic’s program, guys who coached the game and were successful. I know at Western Dubuque we talk about many of the same little things that Vic had us working on every day.”
It was fun to see Vic’s eyes light up in seeing so many of those guys back together again last week. Those outstanding season records were forged through a relentless and fierce competitive spirit. Those guys just refused to lose, sometimes chalking up another ‘W’ in a seventh-inning comeback.
So, in watching Harlan’s recent run of Hawkeye 10 dominance and four straight championship game appearances, I was reminded that I once witnessed something not too different from that.
Those are some special memories.
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