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Gary Belger

Muscatine head coach Gary Belger talks with his team during its 58-55 substate final win against Linn-Mar last Tuesday. 

Dave Chesling, Muscatine Journal

Muscatine boys basketball coach Gary Belger felt like the more he could get his players to envision it, the more likely it would come true.

He wanted the Muskies not only thinking about reaching state every day, but also every night when they went to sleep.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, for the first time in 16 years, Muscatine will play a game in the state tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. As the eighth seed, the Muskies will face No. 1 Iowa City West.

"I talk a lot about dreaming," Belger said. "When they're getting ready to go to bed at night, all they're thinking about is how they're going to beat Linn-Mar or how they're going to beat Iowa City West. That's the only thought process in your mind. Nothing else clutters it."

When he took the position two years ago, Belger passed up a $70,000 job opportunity in Houston. He was sold on the belief that within those first two years as head coach that Muscatine could make it to state.

"The big thing is I kept telling them that they were going to get to the state tournament," Belger said.

He delivered that message to his players before the season started.

He repeated it after a 19-point loss in the regular season finale at Pleasant Valley.

"It makes no difference. We're getting there," Belger told his players after that defeat. "There's going to be a way, and you just got to believe it's going to happen and do the little things to make it happen. It played out right. … I felt for sure it was going to play out right.

"I wasn't coming up here for these first two years here not to have it work."

His visual coaching methods have been on display in practices and games, too. He wants his players to visualize everything before it happens.

"When you're getting ready for the game, locked inside your mind, know your assignment," Belger said. "You got to block out. That's your focus. When you're shooting a layup, you have to get some arc on it. You have to get your legs underneath you. Just little mental things."

Senior Josh Hutton admitted that when Belger arrived, the players on the team thought he was a little crazy.

"He just has an outgoing attitude, and we love it," Hutton said. "He jokes around with us, and we have a lot of fun together. It's nice. It keeps it lighthearted. Obviously he gets on us at times, but he'll be the first one to make a joke, too.

"He's found that balance for us where we have a lot of fun, but we work really hard, too."

Belger's also found a way to turn the Muskies into a state tournament-caliber program and largely has done it on the fly with three new starters this season, constantly tweaking and making adjustments throughout an up-and-down season.

If something isn't going right, Belger won't wait to fix it. He proved that in the team's 58-55 substate final win over Linn-Mar last Tuesday.

After using a man-to-man defense throughout the first quarter, Belger switched to a zone and suddenly a 16-14 deficit after the first eight minutes turned into a 29-22 halftime lead.

"He came in, and we thought he was a little crazy," Hutton said. "Obviously he got us (to state). He's been everything for us. Everything from putting five guys on the same side of the floor against Assumption, and it works. He figures it out. We run a little something different every single game.

"He probably watches more tape than most college coaches do. He prepares us day in and day out. There's a reason we got to state, and it has a lot to do with that guy."

Now, Belger is preparing his team for a new situation.

He knows Muscatine (16-8) will have its hands full when it meets top-rated Iowa City West (19-4) Tuesday night for the first time since losing a substate final to the Trojans, 83-44, a year ago.

"We've been watching film, figuring out areas we think we can attack them, things that we think will work defensively," senior Joe Wieskamp said. "Just trying to get our minds right mentally.

"We'll be playing on a big stage in front of a big crowd. I think it helped playing at the U.S. Cellular Center our last game. This will be another big arena, and I think we'll be ready."

Iowa City West owns the fourth highest field goal percentage (54.3) in the entire state, regardless of class. Its plus-14.8 point differential per game ranks third in Class 4A. It also has three scorers who average in double figures, led by future Iowa Hawkeye Patrick McCaffery, who is scoring 20.6 points per game.

"They're the No. 1 team in the state, but it's not an impossible task," Belger said. "It's within realm that if we play smart, we'll be in the game. ... I know we're ready to play, and I don't think we're afraid at all. That gives you a good feeling going into the game."

With sparse scoring aside from Wieskamp, who is averaging 33.7 points per game, Belger knows that defense will be the key for the Muskies.

"One weakness we don't have is the ability to attempt to play defense," Belger said. "As long as we stick with that, it gives us a fighting chance. Defense is the only thing that can keep us in this game, and we got to have some offense to go with it."


Sports Reporter