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by Mike Avitt
This photo is in rough shape but it is still very clear. A picture very similar to this appears in the February 26, 1931 Diagonal Reporter newspaper. The players are in the same position in the newspaper photo so I have their names. The front row is: Ben Camden, John Varner, and Gayland Stephens. In the back we see: Bill Davis, Dale Herrington, Loe Ruby, Henry Osman, and Ivan Price. Not pictured were Ellis Wiley and Paul Beal. Also, not pictured is Coach O. C. “Pop” Varner.
1930-31 was Coach Varner’s first year at Diagonal. Previously, this future Hall of Fame coach had led the Delphos Basketball boys to at least three Ringgold County Basketball Tournament championships. Delphos won in 1920, 1924, 1926, and 1927. I don’t have proof that he was coach in 1920, but he probably was.
So, with all that success at Delphos, how did Varner fare in his first year at Diagonal? Very well, thank you, and Diagonal won the Ringgold County Tournament by beating Redding, who had upset the heavily favored Maloy team in the semi-finals. Diagonal got fierce competition from Beaconsfield in the semi-finals, overcoming a 13-8 halftime deficit. This county championship would be the first of six in a row for the Diagonal cagers. No other team won more than three in a row.
The 1930-31 season did not end with the Ringgold County Tournament. Diagonal went on to win the Sectional and the District tournaments putting them in the State Tournament. The Diagonal boys lost to Mount Ayr in the first round at state. Mount Ayr lost to Muscatine in the second round. Dale Herrington was the captain of this great Diagonal team and he would later coach the Diagonal Maroons basketball team.
Coach Varner would lead Diagonal to more state tournaments and they captured the State Championship in 1938 and were runner-up in 1939. Creston won in 1939.
Omer Clay Varner was hired by the Mount Ayr School in May 1946. Varner’s first Ringgold County Tournament (1947) as Mount Ayr coach resulted in Mount Ayr vs. Diagonal for the championship. Diagonal won the contest by one point to claim top prize. Varner’s former pupil, G. Dale Herrington, was the coach for Diagonal.
Mount Ayr won the county tournament in 1948, 1949, and 1950, but O. C. Varner suffered a stroke in 1952 and never coached again. He died in 1966.
Varner had great success at Delphos, Diagonal, and Mount Ayr, which led to his induction in the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.