“I think it’s simply that we didn’t think anybody could beat us.”
That’s how Mike Linch remembers the golden era of Creston High School baseball, the start of a five-year run of conference championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which included an agonizing 4-3 defeat in the 1990 state championship game.
Those teams were part of a 21-year tenure for Vic Belger as head baseball coach. For many of those years, CHS graduate Dave Hartman was his assistant. Other assistants during the run were Dave Loos and Mike Gerleman.
On Wednesday, Belger’s oldest son, Scott, will bring his Southeast Polk team to Panther Field. Hartman is his assistant coach.
First pitch ceremony
Vic Begler will be the guest of honor in a ceremony planned by current Panther coach Steve Birchard. Vic will throw out the first pitch prior to the varsity game. At that time, members of the teams from 1989 through 1993 will be introduced on the field.
They will be guests at a cookout during the 5:30 p.m junior varsity game. Many of the sponsors are former Panther players, some during that era — Brian Haines (Ferrara Co.), Ben Adamson (State Farm), Joe Calvin (Farm Bureau), Scott Coen (State Savings Bank) and Linch (Arnold Motor Supply). Other sponsors are Chuck Irelan (Hy-Vee), T.J. and Todd Stalker (Stalker Chevrolet), Rich Paulsen (Creston News Advertiser) and Chad Rieck (KSIB Radio).
All of the honored players and their immediate families will be admitted free to Wednesday’s festivities. Fun facts and a trivia contest related to Panther baseball history will be conducted between innings.
It has been 25 years since the 1989 team began that run of league championships. Birchard said it’s an appropriate time to pay homage to a special time in Creston High School athletic history.
“My college team (Southern Arkansas) had a 25-year reunion,” Birchard said, “and I thought it might be fun to have it not just for one year’s team, but after I saw that we’d won the conference five years in a row, why not include all of them? A lot of the same guys were on several of those teams, with the overlap. And, I thought it might be a motivational thing for our guys, and the kids coming up.”
Vic Belger ranks seventh on the state’s all-time career wins list with a record of 920-319 at Creston and three other schools. He retired as Creston’s coach after the 2003 season.
Belger said he looks forward to the “homecoming” and a chance to see many of his former players.
“It sounds like a good idea,” Belger said. “I was glad Steve did that, getting the guys back together. I haven’t seen them much at all.”
It wasn’t just a five-year era that excelled, either. For example, the teams on each side of that run were outstanding in their own right. The 1988 team was 31-8 and set a school victory record at the time. The 1994 team was 32-7, 7-2 in the league, and had three all-state players.
For the better part of a decade, Creston was the pinnacle of Hawkeye Eight — prior to the addition of Carroll Kuemper Catholic and Denison-Schleswig — along with 4A power Lewis Central and Harlan, like Creston, bouncing back and forth from 3A and 4A.
One year after the Panthers went 39-4 and 14-0 in the league as state runner-up in 1990, Creston was placed in Class 4A for two years. Despite heavy graduation losses that included the likes of all-staters Scott Belger, Scott Driskell and three other starters, that 1991 team won a state-record 41 games in a row after beginning the season 1-1.
They were not derailed until meeting Des Moines East in a substate final at Urbandale. Vic’s youngest son, Kurt, was a member of four of those five conference title teams, including the 1989-1992 teams. He went on to set a Big Ten saves record as a relief pitcher at the University of Iowa.
Driskell, whose eighth-grade son Jaden now plays in the Creston program and will face the Belger-Hartman ballclub Wednesday, recalls the Panthers being 152-18 during his four years of high school. Winning was ingrained in the system.
“I think it’s a great idea to honor the tradition and history this way,” Driskell said. “Especially with coach Belger coming back to be a part of it.”
Losing wasn’t an option, back in those days, Driskell said.
“I didn’t know any different,” he said. “Our little league system had strong coaches with a lot of competitive teams. Then, with Belger and Hartman coaching, you knew it was something important. When the coaches make you feel it’s important, you want to be a part of that.”
Nobody questioned coach Belger’s intensity and competitive drive. It was instilled in his players.
“I think it was his mental toughness,” Driskell said. “He knew his baseball, and Dave Hartman was just as good with the fundamentals. Coach was intense and had high expectations. And we had depth, good kids behind us pushing us. If you weren’t where you were supposed to be on the field at any given time, you just might get a chance to sit on the bench and watch someone else give it a try.”
Pickoff moves, backing up bases, hitting cutoff men and making the correct throw. All of those things were part of the Creston baseball brand, as well as a relentless hitting attack. Streaks like that require some comebacks, and if the Panthers trailed in a game, they always felt a rally was in the offing.
“We just knew we were going to win,” Driskell said. “I remember one year Stuart-Menlo had a good team, and with one out in the bottom of the last inning we came back to win it on a grand slam by Chad Willets to win by one. Aaron Spainhower was our number nine batter, and he could hit a ball farther than any kid I saw all year. We had such great depth, we just felt we were always ready to strike with a big rally.”
One time when they didn’t quite score enough when needed was the 1990 title game in a one-run loss to Spencer.
The Panthers led 3-2 with Driskell still on the mound in the bottom of the seventh. As he tired and with runners on base, sophomore Kurt Belger was brought in with one out.
A “phantom third strike” that wasn’t called, right at the knees across the plate, with two outs came back to haunt the Panthers. Driskell, now playing first base, was so sure it was a called third strike when he saw the pitch, that he tossed his glove in the air thinking he’d just won a state championship.
Instead, that batter drew a walk, and the next batter blooped a two-run single over his head into shallow right field as Spencer walked off with a 4-3 victory.
That era of Creston baseball may be one of the best athletic programs in state history to not own a championship. Yet, a base umpire from that game who later saw Driskell at a high school basketball game admitted to him that “he (plate ump) froze. You guys should have won.”
“Those guys were two of the best umpires in the game, and they still work some games,” Driskell said. “It was just one of those things. You really don’t appreciate what we accomplished until later when you look back on it. Heck, we won 40 games one year, and the next year’s team broke our winning streak record. That team still had Kurt on it. I think they’d have had a great shot at a state title if they weren’t pushed up to 4A.”
The 1989 team was 40-4 and ranked No. 1 in the state for five weeks. But there was a substate loss to a Council Bluffs St. Albert team that featured Brian O’Conner, who went on to pitch at Creighton University and now is the successful coach of the University of Virginia baseball team.
That era of Panthers missed a football playoff berth on a coin toss after an upset loss to Shenandoah, and got sidelined twice in substate basketball by eventual state champions St. Albert and Pella Christian. There was some hard luck mixed in with the incredible success.
Still, Scott Belger looks back on it with pride, and said he draws “rolling eyeballs” when he and Hartman begin another story of past Creston success when talking to their current Southeast Polk players. And now, one of his Panther teammates, former Ottumwa coach Ryan Woods, is an elementary principal at Southeast Polk.
“I couldn’t imagine doing what we did, in our (CIML) conference, against the likes of Valley and Ankeny and Dowling,” Scott Belger said. “It just doesn’t happen like that. But back then, I didn’t expect anything different. It was the culture of our program. We expected to win.”
Scott said his father was demanding and provided a good baseball foundation. It was a tradition.
“The teams right ahead of us were good, too,” Scott said, “with Tim Somers and the Eaton brothers. LC was dominant for awhile, too, but we were always competitive.”
“When I first got to Creston it impressed me that it was a strong baseball town,” Vic Belger said. “They had just opened those (Bill Sears Memorial) little league fields down there, and there was a lot of interest. The Babe Ruth age group (grades 7-9) had six to eight teams playing at McKinley. There was a lot of athletic interest and the kids wanted to play. We didn’t have to worry about numbers. We’d get 40 to 50 kids coming out for the freshman team from the eighth and ninth grades.”
Belger said even when there was turnover on the roster, the winning continued.
“I remember Pat McDonald and Cory Hightshoe and that group, they really hadn’t played much varsity until their senior year,” Belger said. “They thought they were going to win, just like everyone else. I started to believe it, too!”