By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DIAGONAL, Iowa, Jan. 16, 2016 – You get the feeling, when you’re an outsider sitting in the bleachers at the gymnasium for a pair of Diagonal High School home basketball games, that the only people in this south central Iowa community who are not involved in these games are the waitresses you just left at the Back 40 Bar & Grill uptown.
“Yeah, that’s just how it is,” said Gina Gunsolley, the coach of the DHS Maroonettes girls basketball team. “And that’s how we always want it to be, too.”
That’s a feeling that used to be common in Iowa’s small schools and towns, even in some of the larger ones. Not so much now, with too many people staying home to watch college games or other crap on TV instead of filling the local gyms.
Bud Legg, the veteran information director for the Iowa High School Athletic Association, came away from our Diagonal visit on Jan. 8, thrilled to have that feeling again. It’s what he knew as a boy in Anita, as a teacher and coach at South Hamilton of Jewell, and as an athletic director at Ames, but that was all more than 15 years ago.
“Going to a ball game in Diagonal is still going to a real community event,” said Legg. “It’s the way it should be – and that’s probably a pretty good slogan they could put up on a sign coming into town there.”
Bud Legg of the Iowa High School Athletic Association is shown here after grabbing his between-games bag of popcorn at the Diagonal “D Club” concession stand in the gym lobby. “It has consistently been voted the best concession stand in the Blue Grass Conference,” said Larry Teply, the retired principal. Supervised by special education teacher Shelly Bentley, it features chicken wraps and super nachos that always have home and visiting fans raving. Legg’s rating of the popcorn: “Excellent.”
My own line on that: Going to a ball game in Diagonal is as much a cultural experience as a sports outing.
The town’s population is 320, about half what it was in 1940. Diagonal Community School is the smallest K-12 school in the state, with total enrollment of about 110 and about 35 students in high school. Last year’s graduating class was 13. This year’s is five – all boys.
The school has a sharing agreement with the schools in the nearby Ringgold County seat town of Mount Ayr, so Diagonal High students bus there in the mornings for advanced courses and to participate in the sports of football and baseball.
When the town was celebrating its centennial in 1988, Diagonal School Secretary Martha Hammond wrote for the 503-page history book that “a Diagonal School history cannot be written without giving a condensed account of our days of glory – being able to go to state basketball tournaments 11 times (in the 1930s and ’40s). I would have loved being a part of Diagonal in those years,” she continued, “but I have basked in their remembered glory every time some stranger stops in at the school and reminisces about the years when Diagonal went to state 11 times in 19 years.”
Strangers are still stopping in to ask about it.
Our eight included Legg; my wife Carla Offenburger and me; our neighbors near Cooper, Doug and Karen Lawton, and Doug’s mother Dot Lawton; Mike Mahon, co-owner of the Varsity Theatre in Des Moines and former sports information director at Drake University, and Chuck Schoffner, retired sports editor for the Associated Press in Iowa and for years the AP’s top writer on college women’s basketball in the U.S.
All of us are longtime fans of high school basketball in Iowa. All of us had “watching a basketball game in Diagonal” on our bucket lists. We’d tried in February of 2015 and got snowed out. We made it this time.
Larry Peterson, a pal to several of us, is an editor, sportswriter and columnist in neighboring Creston and has been writing about Diagonal since way back in the last century. He recommended as our hosts and guides Larry and Pat Teply, who know everybody in the territory. They were both in the Diagonal High Class of 1973. Larry Teply taught, coached and served as principal at DHS for 34 years before retiring. He is still working parttime at the school, handling technology, serving as public address announcer at the ball games, writing a weekly column “My View by Mr. T” in the Diagonal Progress newspaper, and writing up the game results for the Progress and the Mount Ayr Record-News.
Our hosts were Larry and Pat Teply, shown here in front of the Diagonal Printing Museum, which is now a general museum for the community in the historic building that was once the home of the Diagonal Reporter newspaper.
Our group came partially in homage to the 1938 Diagonal Maroons team that won the one-class boys state tournament played then at Drake Fieldhouse. They established the small school’s “giant killer” reputation in basketball by knocking off Cedar Rapids Franklin and Ames on their way to a championship game victory over Rolfe, 31-29. In 1939, Diagonal was back in the state tournament, upsetting Clinton and Mason City before losing to Creston in the championship game, 25-20. (Yes, a state championship game between Diagonal and Creston, located 20 miles apart! Ahem.)
Most of those Diagonal state tournament teams were coached by Omer Clay “Pop” Varner, who spent 16 years at the school and is in the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s basketball Hall of Fame. Two later Diagonal boys teams that made state, in 1989 and 1991, were coached by Dennis Tassell, another well-known Iowa coach.
Four former Diagonal players are also in the IHSAA basketball Hall of Fame – Corwin Bonebrake, who graduated in 1936, Dick Ives (1943), Bob Ricker (1951) and Terry Anderson (1991). They were all prolific scorers. Ives went on to the University of Iowa, scored 43 points for the Hawkeyes in a Big Ten game when he was a freshman, was named All-American as a sophomore and of course was a multiple selection All-Big Ten.
Get this: The only high schools in the state that have as many players as Diagonal in the IHSAA basketball Hall of Fame are Ames, Davenport, Mason City, Iowa City St. Mary’s, Cedar Rapids Washington, Waterloo East and Waterloo West. Tells you a lot about what a small-school basketball juggernaut Diagonal is, doesn’t it?
Last year, when Diagonal junior Jacob Taylor was picked third-team All-State by the Iowa Newsspaper Association, he became the 19th Diagonal player to be an All-Stater. Taylor, a very athletic 6 ft. 1 in. jumping jack, is now having a terrific senior season, although the Maroons team had a slow start, just now seems to be putting everything together and has a 5-6 record. Coach Matt Warren, 32, a native of Cedar Falls, is in his fifth year heading the boys program and teaching physical education and health.
Diagonal seniors Gerad Naill (left) and Jacob Taylor are shown coming back on the floor after a timeout. Diagonal has a sharing agreement with nearby Mount Ayr for advanced academic classes and participation in football and basketball. Taylor, besides being an All-State basketball player, was the all-conference quarterback for Mount Ayr in football last fall.
The girls basketball history at Diagonal is not as rich. The Maroonettes have never made it to a state tournament, although they’ve come close. But it’s going to be fun watching what happens with this program under the direction of Coach Gunsolley, who is 28.
She was valedictorian of her 2005 Diagonal High graduating class as well as being one of the top scorers in the school’s years playing the 5-girl game. She played at Iowa Central Community College, then finished her degree in kinesiology & health at Iowa State University. She also started work there in the master’s degree program in architecture, but then decided she was “more interested in structures and engineering than in design.”
That’s because she “had always planned” that she would be returning to her hometown, going to work with her father Frank Gunsolley in his lumber and hardware business Diagonal Building Products, and would eventually buy him out and take over the business. That’s exactly what she has done.
She’s also been the head girls basketball coach for five years, although her second year, there were not enough girls for a squad so the program was suspended for a season. “The next year we didn’t win a game, the year after that we won only three,” she said. “It’s a building project.”
From both her business and her basketball program, she knows building projects, and this year’s team is 7-5. There’s not a senior on the squad, and two of the better players are freshmen.
And here are two other things you’ve got to like about basketball in Diagonal.
Gunsolley, the head girls coach, and Warren, the head boys coach, are each other’s assistant coaches.
And they’re dating, too.
“We can sure understand what the other person is going through when things get stressful in a game,” Warren said.
Coach Gina Gunsolley gives instructions to her Diagonal girls team, while her assistant coach and significant other Matt Warren stands at the right.
So even though it’s been a while since the glory years of frequent state tournament appearances, basketball and life are still good in little Diagonal.
“I couldn’t be happier than being where I am right now,” Gunsolley said. “I’m in my hometown with all these kids and parents who love being here, too, and they are really committed to our school and our community. Our people have so much passion – about anything and everything that happens here. Everybody supports everything.”
You can learn more about it in the captions to the photos below. If after reading all this, you want to have your own Diagonal basketball experience this season, you have two more opportunities to see girls-boys doubleheaders in the town. On Jan.22, the Diagonal teams host Melcher-Dallas. On Feb. 2, they host Ankeny Christian Academy.
Looking up the main street in uptown Diagonal.
The team logos high on the Diagonal High School gym wall tell you the schools that have teams playing in the Blue Grass Conference in southern Iowa.
A huge flag is lowered from the rafters for the National Anthem, for which the Diagonal and Twin Cedars girls teams lined up on the free throw lines, and then Diagonal sophomore Cassie Lohmann (holding the microphone at the far end of the line-up of players) led the crowd in singing the song.
Diagonal does not have enough girls in high school to fill the basketball squad and still have cheerleaders. So the younger girls in the school have become the cheerleaders for home games.
A wider view of the full cheerleading squad the night we attended the Diagonal games against Twin Cedars of Bussey.
Just like the fans’ shirts say, at least when it comes to basketball, Diagonal makes it happen.
More Diagonal fans in the back rows of the bleachers.
We were all intrigued by the colorful and varied basketball shoes worn by the Twin Cedars Sabers boys.
If you are wanting to duplicate our group’s recent adventure in Diagonal, you want to start with a pre-game meal in the late afternoon at the Back 40 Bar & Grill, a restaurant of such size and quality you’d expect to find it in a town five or six times as large as Diagonal.
Our supper began with our hosts, the Teplys, teaching us all the Diagonal fight song, which is sung to the tune of “On Wisconsin,” and we serenaded the other diners at the Back 40. (One couple at a far table insisted on singing the Villisca fight song back to us.) Then Chuck Offenburger (center) did a reading from the biography he wrote of one of the state’s all-time best basketball players, Gary Thompson, of little Roland and Iowa State University. In the book, Thompson describes being a Roland freshman reserve in 1949-’50, when his Rockets traveled all the way to Diagonal for a game matching small-school powers. The trip was so long that the Roland team stayed at the Iowana Hotel in Creston the night before the game, and it was the first time Thompson had ever stayed in a hotel. In the foreground are our friends Karen and Doug Lawton, of Cooper.
Here are Bud Legg (left) and Mike Mahon showing off their meals at the Back 40. Legg was having a toasted ham and cheese sandwich and fries, while Mahon daringly tried the restaurant’s “Hangover Helper,” which has a lot of meat and fries with melted cheese over it all — or is that gravy?
Chuck Schoffner had the “Horseshoe” sandwich, a concoction he says he’s found before in towns in southern Illinois. We learned that the Back 40 was built and opened in 2013 as the Fireside Grill by Mark and Sue Steffhagen, who came from Chicago. They sold it about a year ago to Carrie McLead, of Diagonal. The dinner area and bar on the first floor can seat 125, while a lower-level banquet room can accommodate 185. Some funeral visitations are held on that lower level, too.
While the cooks at the Back 40 were preparing our meals, we all visited the Diagonal museum across the street. Here Pat Teply is showing Doug Lawton (left) and Bud Legg some of the pages of the old Diagonal Reporter newspaper. The museum is not normally open this time of year (thus the sheets covering the displays) but we still found it to be not only fascinating, but immaculately clean.
While the museum has significant memorabilia from the 1938 state championship by the Diagonal High School boys basketball team, you’ll see the actual championship trophy in the display case in the lobby of the gym. You have to look closely here to see it through the reflections on the glass cover.
Back to the museum. Chuck Schoffner here holds a basketball autographed by Dick Ives, the All-American at the University of Iowa in the mid 1940s who is a Hall of Famer from Diagonal. Ives later coached basketball and baseball at Parsons College for a year, then got in the hardware business and settled in Cedar Rapids. Later he retired to Florida, where he died at 71 years old in 1997.
More Dick Ives memorabilia in the Diagonal museum from his U of I playing days — including the nameplate from his locker, a pair of sweat socks and some practice duds.
It’s not ALL basketball in the Diagonal area. This museum display about the now-faded town of Knowlton tells the story of the county’s one baseball player to reach the major leagues — Everett “Yam” Yaryan.
Old time newspaperman Chuck Offenburger was of course enchanted by the old time linotype machine in the Diagonal museum, which is located in the historic building where the Diagonal Reporter was headquartered for decades.
There is “up close” parking for basketball games at the Diagonal High School gymnasium — if you get there early enough.
Diagonal has three gyms — the one where games are now held, built in the 1970s; this one built in 1927 as an addition to the main school building, now used mainly as a community daycare center, and a tiny 1914 gymnasium in the basement of the main school building, now used as the art room. We especially wanted to see this 1927 gym, since it is the one where the 1938 state champs from Diagonal would have played their games. There were two or three rows of bleachers along some sidewalls and in an overhanging balcony, with the stage on one side. “There are a whole lot of memories in that gym,” said our Diagonal guide Larry Teply, the retired principal.
A closer view of the stage in the 1927 gym, and note the tricycles all lined up for the daycare kids in front of the stage.
Karleen Stephens, the Diagonal superintendent of schools who is also a DHS graduate (1973), shows off the historic gym — now a daycare facility — to Carla Offenburger (left) and Karen Lawton.
Here is the night view of the main school building, and you’ll see one of the enclosed slides used for fire escapes — there is a similar slide on the other side of the building. Superintendent Karleen Stephens told us that one night after an event at the school, she had locked the buildings and was just ready to leave when a “party bus” pulled up. “It was a bridesmaids’ party from a neighboring town,” Stephens said. “These young women said they’d played basketball several times in Diagonal, and they always wanted to slide down our fire escapes. They asked me if I could possibly open back up and let them do that. And I did.” The campus has three school buildings, adjacent to each other, plus the current gym just a short walk away.
The victory bell is located just outside the front doors of the gym. (It once was in a belfry atop the main school building.) Now when the Diagonal teams win, they shake hands with their opponents, then sprint out the front door and ring the bell to announce their latest win.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.