I spent last week trying to pass along to readers why the Creston baseball teams of the late 1980s and 1990s were so successful, leading up to Wednesday's salute at Panther Field to the five straight conference championship teams.
The combined record of those five teams was 177-23, for an average season of 35-4.
There are the obvious things, like a qualified and demanding coach (Vic Belger) who is among the winningest of all-time in Iowa. There was also a good run of athletes coming through Creston High School at that time as well. Most of them played baseball.
But there was more to it than that. I finally started to put my finger on the intangibles that made this run special when former players Cory Latham and Joe Calvin related a story, I believe from the 1993 season.
It struck me that this was a band of brothers who basically took the stance of, "You mess with one of us, you mess with ALL of us, and all of us are way more than you can handle."
That was evident that summer when the Panthers traveled to Shenandoah for a varsity doubleheader.
"The winter before that baseball season, a kid from Shenandoah shoved one of our basketball players during a game," Latham said.
Latham and Joe Calvin were the starting pitchers in that doubleheader, and both had been starters in basketball. Belger was head coach for both sports at the time.
"Calvin hit him the first game, and I hit him the second game," Latham said. "All Vic did was just look (shrugging), like sometimes you gotta do it, you know? As long as we were out there winning. That stuff wouldn't fly if we weren't winning."
Calvin laughed at the memory. It was cooked up by the players. The coaches didn't know the plan beforehand.
"Yeah, before the game Latham and I talked about it," Calvin said.
There was a confidence, bordering just on the edge of cockiness, that carried the team to victories that maybe they didn't always deserve.
"We'd just win," Calvin said. "Harlan had Marty Barnett, who pitched AAA, and LC had Bret Elam, who threw so hard. We 10-runned Barnett. We beat (Indianola's) Casey Blake when Lamar Lindsay made a diving catch. Just laid out."
"We didn't have better talent than a lot of teams," said Kurt Belger, who won that matchup with Blake, the future major leaguer. "Put together a coach who knows how to coach well, with some kids willing to work, and that built confidence. We probably played better than we were a lot of times."
Ryan Woods is now a sixth-grade principal in the same Southeast Polk school district where Scott Belger and Dave Hartman coach the baseball team. For several years, he coached baseball at Ottumwa High School. As he got into coaching, his appreciation for his high school success grew.
"Everybody knows coach (Vic) Belger is a tremendous leader," Woods said. "Expectations were high. When you showed up, you knew you were going to work hard and play the game the right way. Guys were waiting in the wings. Even in a smaller community, if you get them all out, you're going to have good athletes at all of the positions. Now, there are so many other options. You can play other sports year-round."
Latham said Wednesday night's ceremony was a great reminder of what can happen. He hopes it serves as a spark for modern-day baseball interest, as he has a son and daughter coming through the school system.
"All the youths just loved baseball back then," Latham said. "Maybe something like this can help get it built back up again. It was nothing for us to get done with practice, and go with Dave Hartman to the softball field and play rag ball for nine innings. We'd get 18 players to go over. We were very competitive, and we just loved baseball."
Latham was part of a string of outstanding center fielders that were part of Panther baseball back then. Others who excelled in that position were Brian Kendrick, Brian Parkins and Cory Hightshoe. It was an honor to play center field for the Creston Panthers, and it has continued to be a strong position in the program over time, including Cole Crawford on this year's edition.
"Coach Belger just ingrained the tradition of working hard, showing up to practice like you play," Parkins said. "If you didn't want to work hard and hustle, he would find someone else who would."
That's the thing I would communicate to current players. It was understood that — if you failed to back up third and home as a pitcher, if you didn't pay attention as a fielder and an opposing runner took an extra base, if you jogged to first base because you thought you hit a homer, or if you missed a throw to the cutoff man allowing runners to advance — it was not only likely you'd not only get an earful from Belger, but possibly you'd have a seat to watch the rest of the game to think about it.
"We had a lot of good guys behind you at every position," Parkins said.
Naturally, when you get that group together, the 1990 3A title came comes up. It's a well-circulated story that relief pitcher Kurt Belger seemed to throw strike three to end a 3-2 victory over Spencer, with two runners on. Brian Haines was the catcher.
"Kurt was throwing gas and they weren't catching up to him," Haines said. "That pitch was right down the middle, I didn't move my glove. Coach Belger and I had a signal. He'd look at me and ask where the pitch was, and I'd grab my mask if it was a strike. That would give him an opportunity to yell at the umpire. That time he asked me where the pitch was, and I was shaking that mask for all it was worth!"
Alas, the batter walked and the next batter took a weak swing at a Belger curveball and punched it over the head of Scott Driskell at first, and beyond the reach of a diving Jason Hagle at second. Two runs scored, giving Spencer the 4-3 victory.
"I was ready to jump out of the dugout," said Brett Willenborg. "I was the first one on the ledge. It was unbelievable."
"At the high school all-star game that year, the Spencer coach told me he was sorry," Vic Belger said, smiling.
"In my mind we won that game," Haines said. "That's the way I look at it."
For Driskell, it was the culmination of a whirlwind week, as he was also one of two quarterbacks on the South squad for the Iowa Shrine Bowl in Cedar Falls.
Dave Driskell, his father, twice chartered a small plane to shuttle Scott from football workouts in Cedar Falls to Panther tournament games in Winterset and Creston. In one, the Panthers defeated a Jefferson-Scranton pitcher who would go on to pitch at the University of Iowa prior to Kurt Belger's arrival.
The Panthers advanced to that title game scheduled on Saturday night — the same night as the Shrine Bowl.
"I had a tough decision to make, and it wasn't a decision, really, because I was going to play baseball," Driskell said. "Shad Flynn of Iowa City High was the other (South) quarterback, and he would have been the only one."
That morning, rainfall was deemed too heavy to hold the championship games at Marshalltown's field, so the Iowa High School Athletic Association postponed championship baseball action to Monday night.
"Never have I been more excited for a rainout in my life," Driskell said. "My parents hurried me over to Cedar Falls for the football game. I threw a touchdown pass and we won by two points after we blocked a field goal. It was crazy."
Driskell was the starting pitcher and lasted into the seventh two nights later in the 3A baseball championship game. Kurt Belger, who had pitched the semifinal win over Cedar Rapids LaSalle (now Xavier), relieved him with runners aboard in the seventh.
"I remember thinking that pitch was a strike, and people coming out of the dugout celebrating," Kurt Belger said. "Then there was an awkward pause. He walked, and the next guy was fooled, but he blooped it over Driskell. That was a tough one to swallow."
Driskell then reported for football at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Looking back now, it was a hectic, but exciting time.
"I never really sat down to think about it all," Driskell said. "But looking back over time, yeah, it was a special time with a special group of guys. It's great that coach Birchard put this together."
U.S. history and Iowa history is taught in the schools, but Wednesday night's festivities provided a nice dose of Creston history. Even on a Wednesday night, 20 former players and coaches were honored before the varsity game.
It was an honor to cover that team, and hopefully it serves as a link to aspired success for Panther baseball to come.
I wouldn't mind jumping on that ride again!
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