A TEAM FOR THE AGES
Eagle Grove used the agony of defeat to fuel their championship run in 2002
July 27, 2002 is a date the Eagle Grove community will forever remember.
It may have never happened, though, without July 28, 2001.
A long journey filled with hard work, commitment and sacrifice ended in glory for the Eagle baseball team nearly 18 years ago. They returned to the north-central Iowa town of 3,500 with their heads held high and a championship trophy in tow.
That wasn’t the case 365 days prior, when Eagle Grove saw a commanding 5-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning painfully evaporate. Emmetsburg rallied to take the ’01 state title from the crestfallen Eagles at Marshalltown, 7-6.
“We were so close to winning it in 2001, but lost in devastating fashion,” said former EGHS standout Brett Jensen, who now lives with his wife, Holly, in Denver, Col. “No story is ever complete without a comeback. We came apart at the seams a bit when we let that Emmetsburg game get away, and it was a major lesson in how to perform under pressure going forward.
“We used that feeling from a year before in 2002, and it really kept the throttle down to finish off that run. Those experiences taught me a great deal about how to respond to failure and perform under pressure, not only throughout the remainder of my baseball career in the closer role, but now, in my professional life.”
Jensen, catcher Luke Reiland and second baseman Brock Iverson were first team all-state selections for the ’02 Eagles, who captured the first state baseball title in school history with a 31-3 overall record. Centerfielder Brook Beisell, shortstop Ryan O’Hern and right fielder Matt Peterson were also standout position players that summer, with Jensen, Iverson and Bryan Bachel doing the heavy lifting in the pitching rotation for head coach Bruce Rholl’s squad.
“This team was loaded with seniors, and being one of those, I was looked upon as a leader that a lot of the guys turned to,” said Reiland, who currently resides in Grimes with his wife, Abi, and their two children. “(Being the) catcher on the team, I saw the entire field and needed to know everything. Barking signals and situations was a large part of my role. Everyone on the field needed to know what was going on. I was the facilitator for that communication.
“I remember being overwhelmed with a mix of joy and relief (after the final out to seal the title). The year before, we made the state finals and were ahead by three runs in the seventh inning but ended up losing on the last play of the game. I just remember thinking that things were going to be so much sweeter now because we were finally state champs. I knew that a lot of the guys on that team would get opportunities that they might not otherwise get because of the team’s success.”
Iverson’s older brother, Brett, was an all-state senior on the hill when Emmetsburg began to stage its late two-out rally the year before. The gut-wrenching loss was used to fuel the determination that in 2002, Eagle Grove would leave no doubt.
“The drive from everyone up and down the lineup, through the coaching staff, was all about making sure there would be a different outcome (in 2002),” said Brock Iverson, who now lives in Johnston with his wife, Brittany, and their two daughters. “We had so much focus and desire to get back up after defeat going into that season. We went from the lowest feeling in sports to the highest of highs in 2002. Life throws curve balls at you that give you similar emotions, and you learn to take the good with the bad. That’s what we did.
“The championship was the icing on the cake from years of hard work and dedication. Our team had chemistry like no team I’d ever been on, and I feel a lot of the chemistry was built from being friends off the field and playing other sports together. We all had the fire to win.”
The 6-foot-7 Jensen, who became a junior college All-American at Iowa Central Community College before developing into an All-American closer at the University of Nebraska, admits the psychology of both wiping the slate clean and re-establishing a level of confidence was critical in 2002.
“We were due for new uniforms, and Coach Rholl gave some of our seniors free reign in designing the new tops and hats,” said Jensen, who eventually reached the Double-A level with the Detroit Tigers organization before retiring in 2010. “We knew we had a good team coming back, so we thought that going with black as the dominant color of our uniforms would really ‘announce our presence with authority,’ to quote Nuke LaLoosh (from ‘Bull Durham’).
“We also paired the black uniforms with AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ for our infield/outfield music mix.”
Jensen then laughed and added, “in our 18-year-old minds, the details would make all the difference.”
Eagle Grove was dominant for most of the ’02 campaign, but the Eagles did drop a pair of one-run games to North Central Conference rival Bishop Garrigan during the regular season. The teams squared off again in a pressure-packed 2A district championship tilt, and a fortuitous bounce allowed EGHS to advance by a 4-3 final in nine innings.
“We almost didn’t even make it to state,” Reiland said. “We played Garrigan in the district finals, and they came close to ending our season. A ground ball with eyes up the middle and an extremely favorable hop over the shortstop’s glove scored a couple of runs and ultimately allowed us to win.
“They say luck is a huge part of the game…the baseball gods were looking down on us favorably that night.”
Brett Legvold, a sophomore starter at third base that summer, remembers the pressure the team felt to get over the hump — but the fun it also had along the way.
“I bet we led the conference in number of foul-pole runs as punishment after disembarking the bus following a rowdy ride home (to celebrate) a win,” said Legvold, an attorney in Humboldt. “We had a few seniors who made sure to keep us loose, much to our coaches’ chagrin.
“Part of the beauty of that team is that I think everyone knew we were doing something special, so we made sure to enjoy it. We still joke and laugh about memories from that summer on the rare occasion a handful of teammates get together.”
Jensen finished the season 12-0 with an earned run average right at 0.50. He struck out 109 batters in 76 innings pitched, allowing only five runs and walking six batters the entire year.
In the final round against Dyersville Beckman, Jensen fired a three-hit shutout with nine strikeouts in Eagle Grove’s 4-0 win. The Eagles outscored Hudson, Unity Christian and Beckman at state in Marshalltown, 13-2.
Iverson was a perfect 11-0 on the mound for the season, and Bachel went 8-1 with an ERA under 1.
Reiland, O’Hern, Beisell, Jensen and Marshall Bickford all batted over .400. Reiland hit nine home runs and drove in 47.
Beisell, Jensen and Peterson all cleared the 30 RBI mark. Beisell had 13 doubles and six triples.
Jensen and Reiland joined forces the next year as battery mates at Iowa Central Community College, and the Tritons reached the national championship game in 2003 with Brett Iverson also on board. Iowa Central placed fourth at the NJCAA Tournament the next year with Jensen, Reiland and Brock Iverson leading the way.
Brock Iverson and O’Hern made the 2003 all-state team, as Eagle Grove went back to state for a third consecutive season. The Eagles had reached state only one time before 2001 — in 1943 — and haven’t been back since ’03.
A total of 11 athletes from the 2001-03 Eagle Grove lineups competed in a sport collegiately. Jensen, Reiland (Campbell), Brett Iverson (Northern Iowa) and Brock Iverson (Northern Iowa) played Div. I baseball.
“We had more talent than I think any of us understood,” Jensen said. “In talking with teammates at Nebraska and into pro ball, having that amount of high-end talent on one (high school) team was rare, let alone being a 2A school from small-town Iowa.”
Jensen vividly remembers the last out of the championship contest, adding, “Ryan O’Hern made a great play on a slow roller to short and our first baseman, Bryan Bachel, made the most impressive scoop I’ve ever seen on a ball in the dirt. Luke and I were basically inseparable during high school, and I gave him the biggest bear hug that The Messenger captured in a photo.
“We actually blew that picture up and hung it on our dorm-room wall at Iowa Central. There isn’t a better feeling in sports than getting to celebrate with your teammates and best friends.”
Brock Iverson fondly recalls the 24 hours after winning it all.
“To see the pride that our title brought to Eagle Grove as we returned home from Marshalltown to a town parade … it would be nice to go back, slow things down, and really see how great this team was and what impact we were having around the community. We had huge crowds at home and even on the road. That excitement was something special.
“We had a three- or four-year stretch of some pretty exciting athletics in Eagle Grove. It would be nice to cherish it all again.”
Reiland sees now, in retrospect, just how unique this group was when it took the field together.
“I think a lot of us realize in hindsight that we probably could have lived in the moment a bit more,” said Reiland, who was also a state wrestling champ in 2002. “But we were 17- or 18-year-old kids. I have no regrets from that year or that team. It was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ pool of talent. We played the game hard and with respect. Getting an entire team to commit to a common goal is damn near impossible, but that team was special. Learning to lose together is just as important as learning to win together. I think our camaraderie was a huge part of that. We were able to stick together during the tougher times.
“I miss it. I miss everything about being on the field and around the guys. But that’s a perspective you never realize until you are done playing.”