Benton Coach Eric Stenberg has a special team, an uncommon life

Softball: Benton coach wins games, then the real work begins

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VAN HORNE — It’s 9:30 on a summer weeknight. A softball doubleheader has just concluded, most likely dominated by the home team.

The players pack their bat bags and linger. They visit with parents, classmates, boyfriends, then retreat to their homes. Their day is ending.

The coach is in scramble mode. He puts the equipment away, pushing to be on the road at 10, get a quick shower, then move on.

His day is just beginning.

 

Such is life for Eric Stenberg, overnight emergency-room physician at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City. One and the same as Eric Stenberg, coach at Benton Community, the top-ranked team in Class 3A.

“It’s incredible what he does,” said senior Lea Brunssen. “He comes to practice after work, and he’s got to be tired. But he doesn’t let it affect him.”

For the second straight year, Stenberg takes the Bobcats to the Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge, home of the state tournament. They’re hoping for a happier ending than last year, when Solon defeated them in 3A final.

“This team deserves to get back to the championship game, and hopefully things will fall into place,” Stenberg said. “I can’t imagine a group that deserves it more.”

Benton (40-2) opens with a first-round game at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Estherville-Lincoln Central (19-15).

When the Bobcats address Stenberg, they don’t do it as “Coach.”

They call him “Doc.”

“I’m pretty informal that way,” Stenberg said. “When I’m at work, I introduce myself as Eric Stenberg. I just like to be a normal person.”

A normal person with an unconventional schedule — he works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., inserting chest tubes, treating patients, saving lives — and a remarkable team.

“Doc has done a terrific job, and he’d be the first to tell you he’s had great kids to work with,” said Benton superintendent Gary Zittergruen, who coached the school’s last state-championship softball team, in 1998. “He’s a relationship builder. He has extremely high expectations for their performance.”

Usually, the Bobcats perform to the level Stenberg expects. In his three years, his teams have built a record of 119-11.

 

“This team will go down as the most talented team Benton Community has ever seen,” he said. “We have some once-in-a-lifetime players on this team.”

It’s likely that pitcher Amber Fiser (102 career wins) and infielder Alyssa Wiebel (64 career home runs) will be in the IGHSAU Softball Hall of Fame someday. But Benton is a special team because it is strong throughout their order, all around the diamond.

“We all have talent. We all played softball when we were little, and we’re all able to contribute,” said Anna Stenberg, a junior and the last of Eric’s three kids — sons Tony and Jake were all-state catchers at Benton and now serve as head and volunteer assistant coaches for the Alburnett baseball team.

Stenberg, 50, was an all-state catcher himself, at Cedar Rapids Kennedy, from which he graduated in 1984. He was a physician at Anamosa, then an ER doctor in Marshalltown (commuting daily from his home between Atkins and Norway), before taking the job in Iowa City in 2007.

After his work night is finished, it’s back to Van Horne for practice, generally from 9 until 11 a.m. If a freshman team or JV team is playing at noon, he tries to attend.

Afternoons are sleep time.

“I don’t see him much except for at the ball diamond,” Anna said. “He’s at work, or I’m not home, or he’s sleeping.”

Stenberg coached Anna, in addition to Fiser and Brunssen, when they played for the Cedar Rapids Blue Devils, then the Eastern Iowa Barracudas.

He took over the Benton program in 2014, after his predecessor, Ali Galbraith, stepped down for maternity leave. The first person’s opinion he asked was that of Anna.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Anna said. “I didn’t know how it would be with me. But he’d coached me for years, and I didn’t think it would be much different.”

Stenberg calls himself “an old baseball guy bringing a baseball mentality” to softball, but readily admits it’s different coaching girls.

“It’s a world of difference,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to handle things a little less sternly, and be aware of other things going on their world.”

Their world, this week, revolves around a championship quest.

“It’s a special team,” Zittergruen said. “It’s been so much fun watching these kids play. They’re very talented, and very purposeful.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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