WAVERLY | Justin Little enjoyed his front-row seat when Waverly-Shell Rock earned a trip to the state basketball tournament.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, the Go-Hawk assistant boys' basketball coach also thought about the action in another gymnasium. While W-SR beat Crestwood in Monday's Class 3A substate final at Decorah High School, Little watched it happen from the bench and he cheered silently for a team and a player from his past.
"I kept saying, 'Come on, Dunk. Please Dunk. Win Dunk,''' said Little, laughing. "There are still a lot of ties there."
In that sense, Little posted a substate sweep. In his inaugural season as a member of Nate Steege's staff at Waverly-Shell Rock, he's returning to state for the first time since 2004. That's when Dunkerton won the Class 1A championship with Little as the head coach and a senior named Brian Brungard playing point guard.
A decade later, Brungard owns the front-row seat on the Raider bench. He's the first-year head coach and he'll guide Dunkerton into Monday's 2 p.m. 1A opener against East Mills. Tuesday night at 8:15 p.m., Little will be in Wells Fargo Arena when Waverly-Shell Rock meets Grinnell in the 3A quarterfinals.
It's unlikely that LIttle will be able to attend the Dunkerton-East Mills game. But, once again, he'll be rooting for the Raiders and Brungard.
"It just makes me feel proud," said Little, a Waterloo East graduate. "I"ve known Brian since he was a little kid running around and playing. I knew he always wanted to be a basketball coach. When he got the job (at Dunkerton), it makes me feel proud.
"It's kind of funny. I tease him now that he's starting to know all the reasons why I don't have any hair. He's realizing that now. We had a 10-year reunion a few weeks back and Brian helped put a lot of that together. Just watching him run around and try to get ready for that kind of made me chuckle. I remember those days."
As for Brungard, he considers Little a valuable source of information as he tries to make the necessary arrangements for Dunkerton's trip to state. Facetiously, the former point guard said he's also keeping a close eye on his own hairline.
"I'll be just as bald as (Little) pretty soon," said Brungard. "I'm getting gray hair. I'm finding out I'm very tired most days."
The 28-year-old Brungard added, "I've been very happy to touch base (with Little). He's come to a couple of games and helped with the state process since he's been through it. If I need help, I give him a call. We've maybe talked once every other week about things to do. He's been very influential that way."
Shortly after Dunkerton won it all in 2004, Little and Brungard went through the same process that every high school coach and player encounters. They went separate ways.
Eventually, Little took the head coaching job at Waterloo West. At the end of his fourth season, Little resigned, saying he wanted to spend more time watching his son (Jackson) and daughter (Sydney) compete.
He's been able to do that. But he also returned to coaching. The Go-Hawks' drive to the 2013 3A state championship marked the end of Bill Eckenrod's tenure as an assistant for Waverly-Shell Rock's boys. When Eckenrod retired, Steege turned to Little as a replacement. Little has been living in Waverly for roughly the past decade and he'd already known the Go-Hawk head coach for some time.
Thus, Little has become part of a highly successful program that's won two state titles since 2007. And he's going back to state.
"It's really no different," said Little of being an assistant rather than a head coach. "The same goal is there. To be honest, I'm probably more excited about (the state tournament) than the other guys. It's the fourth year in a row for them. It's 10 years since I've been there. But Nate has been great."
Brungard, meanwhile, played college basketball at Coe for four seasons. During the summer months, he returned to Dunkerton to be the head coach of the Raider baseball team.
Briefly, Brungard considered joining the staff at Coe. Instead, he landed a teaching job at Dunkerton in 2008 and became an assistant boys' basketball coach for five seasons.
"It was different being in a different role," said Brungard of coming home. "But it wasn't like I was totally gone for four years. I knew how the school worked as an employee."
Ten years after completing his high school playing career with a state title, Brungard is returning to Des Moines as the man in charge. Following the substate win over Jesup at Independence that punched Dunkerton's ticket to state, Brungard felt a different set of emotions than he did as a player.
"I think I was much more nervous," he said. "As a player, you have so much more control on the court as a player. As a coach, I get nervous for the guys, hoping they carry through what we talked about and worked on defensively. I wanted them to feel the same thing I felt going down to Des Moines, but I definitely felt more nervous as a player."
The 2014 state tournament awaits Little and Brungard. They are two men linked by history, the coaching profession, the game of basketball itself and a personal bond.
"We're definitely pretty close," said Brungard.