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 Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, January 28, 2016, Pages 12 & 18

'Iowa Boy' experiences Diagonal
Offenburger takes in a Diagonal tradition: Basketball

By Chuck Offenburger

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 back at the Back 40 Bar & Grill uptown.

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."

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 populationg 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 morings 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 withoug 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 stoping 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 collllege 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 [School] Class of 973. Larry Teply taught, coached and served as principal at HDS 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.

Out group came partically 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 (1942), Bob Ricker (1952) and Terry Anderson (1992). They were all prolific scorers. Ives went on to the University of Ioowa, 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 Newspaper 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.

The girls basketball history at Diagonal is not as rich. TheMaroonettes 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 agriculture, 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 had 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 betterplayers are freshmen.

And here are two other things you've got to like about basketball in Diagonal.

Gunsolley, the head girl's coach, and Warren, the head boys coach, are each other's assistant [Page 18] 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.

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."

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 Ankey Christian Academy.

  • Chuck Offenburger's article

    Photograph courtesy of Mount Ayr Record-News
    Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, May of 2016

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