DIAGONAL – When the Diagonal boys basketball team ran onto the court, sound from the capacity crowd reverberated off the ceiling of the gymnasium, creating a hostile environment for opposing teams.
It was almost like a snake pit for opponents, a trap they could not escape from, as head coach Dennis Tassell’s Maroons broke the will of their opponents on a nightly basis.
From 1988 through 1991, the Diagonal Maroons went on an unprecedented run of success.
The Maroons lost on a buzzer-beater to Murray in the 1988 district final, made the Class A State Basketball Tournament in 1989, lost in a substate final in 1990 and then returned to state in 1991 for the school’s 13th, and most recent, state tournament appearance.
In a four-year span from 1987 to 1991, the Maroons lost only a single game on their home court.
“It was like a tournament atmosphere every night,” said Larry McNutt, who played on both state tournament teams and is now a coach for the Creston Community Middle School boys and girls. “Everyone in town came. The concession stand was like the local restaurant that night, because people came to eat at the game. It was packed every night. People always sat in the same spot. It was really loud. The crowd was right on top of you there. Obviously, we had a pretty good home court advantage all those years not losing at home.”
McNutt related a story about a home game in 1990 against Lenox. Both teams were ranked and the gymnasium in Diagonal was packed so full, the temperature in the gym got to the point where the doors on the east end of the gym were opened up. That led to moisture accumulating on the basketball court, turning it into a de facto skating rink and causing them to close the doors and mop the floor before the game could resume.
“It was rocking all night long,” Larry Teply, an assistant coach for the 1989 team and former Diagonal principal, said about home games. “We always had great crowds and great support. People bought into the system and they wanted to be part of it.”
Teply, who stopped coaching after the 1989 season and broadcasted the 1991 tournament run with longtime KSIB Sports Director Gary Bucklin, recalled having to make a trip into northwest Iowa for a game, with the team encountering heavy fog the whole way there. Teply kept calling the host school and was told the game was still on since there was no fog in northwest Iowa.
He said the Diagonal faithful braved the treacherous travel conditions and filled the gym, and then the bus followed the Maroon fans home in the dense fog.
“Something like that just shows the dedication of them at that time and they really still are,” Teply said. “We still get great crowds.”
When asked to describe Diagonal basketball in one word, McNutt was quick to answer: “Passionate.”
“The people of Diagonal really love their basketball,” he said. “They have for many, many years and they still do. It was pretty evident in their girls tournament run this year. I was talking to one of the Lenox girls coaches and they couldn’t believe how many fans Diagonal brought. It’s always been that way. For a little town of 300, when we played in substates in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a big gym in Indianola, to fill one side and actually could have used part of another section on the other side, that’s pretty impressive.”
The 1989 Diagonal team entered the state tournament with a record of 24-0, having cruised to the South Central 6 Conference championship.
The Maroons eclipsed the 100-point mark 11 times that season, including in three of four postseason games. That Diagonal team entered the state tournament as the state’s highest scoring team at 98.3 points per game, and featured two of the top four scorers in the state in Class A in Terry Anderson (24.5 points per game) and Allen Allee (20.5 points per game).
The Maroons held opponents to just 55.4 points per game entering the state tournament, for an impressive average margin of victory of 42.9 points.
Even the substate victory over Blakesburg in Indianola was a runaway, as the Maroons handled Blakesburg 110-57.
“I can remember sitting on the bench and right before halftime talking with a teammate, you knew you were going to state at halftime,” McNutt said. “That’s a feeling not too many players can say they’ve had. Everybody on that roster got a chance to play in the substate final. Not very many kids get that opportunity, either.”
Teply said it was the team’s balance that made it so good offensively.
“They definitely got it up and down the floor quickly,” Teply said. “We had some pretty good size inside and some good 3-point shooters on the outside. If they backed off them, they could hit the threes, and if they didn’t, they could go inside. Having Terry Anderson, who was leading the state in scoring, was a plus.”
Anderson was a sophomore in 1989. By the time he graduated after the 1991 season, he was the second all-time leading scorer in state history. Anderson’s 2,506 career points still ranks him in fourth place in state history and remains the top mark in Class 1A history.
Chad Austin ran the offense as the point guard of the team, providing speed and good ballhandling skills. Allen Allee was a junior southpaw on the team, and McNutt said he was the team’s best shooter. The late Justin Jacobson was a starter and Mark England provided solid defense and rebounding. Jason Butler was a back-up point guard and Eddie Allee was the team’s sixth man.
“He was good enough to start, but he gave you a lot of energy and I think coach liked that off the bench,” McNutt said about Eddie Allee. “Our JV team that year, we’d beat a lot of varsity teams. We had a lot of depth, which was good in practice, because you’d get a lot of action. Our younger guys got to play against a lot of great guys every day in practice, and that really made us better.”
The Maroons were ranked third in the state entering the state tournament in 1989, but were upset in the first round by Colo-Nesco, which held the Maroons to just 48 points. Colo-Nesco went on to make it to the championship game.
The 1989 season also featured the infamous “rain out game” against Creston at Southwestern Community College.
The game was part of the Creston Holiday Tournament, which featured four teams. At the time, Creston played at “The Pit” at the old high school, which couldn’t hold four teams, so games were played at SWCC.
Creston and Diagonal met in the championship game of the tournament. Creston’s team featured names like Brian Haines, Scott Driskell and Scott Belger, with Vic Belger coaching the Panthers.
“It was obviously intense,” McNutt said. “Coach Belger and Coach Tassell didn’t have the best friendship at one time, so it was hostile.”
With six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the snow on the roof of the SWCC gym began leaking through and dripping on the floor. With a constant drip, it was decided the game couldn’t continue and was suspended.
“We ended up coming back on a weeknight and finishing the last six minutes of the game,” McNutt recalled. “It was in the USA Today paper. It was all over the country about a basketball game getting rained out. I still have fun with it, now that I live in Creston, with some of the Creston people.”
In 1991, Diagonal entered the state tournament with a mark of 23-1, having averaged 92.9 points per game to lead the state. The Maroons gave up an average of 64.2 points per game for an average margin of victory of 28.7 points.
The Maroons eclipsed the 100-point mark nine times during the regular season, and in the final game of the regular season, Diagonal beat current Nodaway Valley coach Darrell Burmeister’s Bridgewater-Fontanelle squad 113-69.
“His teams have obviously gotten a lot better since then,” McNutt said.
Anderson led the state in scoring at 34.9 points per game, while ranking second in rebounding with 12.2 boards per game.
But, Diagonal was once again upset in the first round of the tournament, this time by a Pomeroy Palmer team coached by current Harlan head coach Mitch Osborn.
“Honestly, we should have won,” McNutt said. “We got our two post players, Terry Anderson fouled out with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter and Justin Jacobson fouled out a possession or two later, so we didn’t have any size. Pomeroy got a lead on us and ended up beating us. When you take out that many points (Anderson’s 34.9 per game) and basically play the fourth quarter without him at the state tournament, that’s pretty tough to overcome.”
The 1991 tournament was the last state tournament appearance for Diagonal. At the time, Diagonal was the third-smallest school in the state, with only Iowa Braille and Sight School and Lineville-Clio being smaller.
Lineville-Clio no longer has a school district, and Diagonal now claims the smallest public school district in the state.
Passion for hoops
Diagonal has always been crazy about basketball. Teply noted he heard a story about one of the school’s early trips to the state tournament, the last of which came in 1949 until the 1989 team made the trip.
As Teply heard it, during one of Diagonal’s trips to the state tournament, the entire town was emptied out. While everyone was away at the game, the town’s depot caught on fire and there was no one left in the town to put the fire out.
“I think it’s [basketball] been a glue for many years to provide something we can really hang our hat on,” Teply said. “We’re small. We understand that. But yet, for as long as anyone can remember, basketball has been the thing at Diagonal. Of course, we’re successful at other things, but everybody would talk about Diagonal basketball. We have 13 [state tournament] appearances, which still ranks pretty high in the state.”
McNutt said it was unbelievable to see the town so excited. He recalls Main Street being painted when the Maroons made the state tournament and many of the businesses painting their windows.
“A little town comes to life for something like that,” he said.
Driving that passion for basketball, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, was coach Tassell.
McNutt called him “the Bobby Knight of high school basketball before Bobby Knight.”
“He was tough on you, demanded a lot. Most players respected him,” McNutt said. “He obviously became a mentor to me when I decided to go into coaching. He’s the reason I’m in education today. There’s several of us who are teachers or coaches or both. I know a lot of people credit the success they’ve had in life to him. He demanded excellence.
“You got yelled at, but you knew he was doing it to try to make you better,” McNutt said. “A lot of people, opposing fans, just saw him yelling during games, didn’t see him away from basketball. When we went to summer team camps, he’d be joking around and having fun. A lot of people didn’t see that side of him.”
Tassell’s head coaching career lasted a total of 24 years between stops at Sentral, Fenton; Diagonal; Central Dallas and Cedar Valley, Somers. He compiled a career record of 377 wins and just 104 losses for a career winning percentage of 78.4 percent.
“Basketball was definitely his passion,” Teply said. “He wasn’t afraid to work the kids hard. Basically, he just expected them to do what they were out there to do. As far as coaches I’ve seen, his strength was how he was able to watch other teams, break them down and come up with a game plan to beat them.”
Tassell left the Diagonal Community School District, where he also served as superintendent for 21 years, in 1992 to become superintendent and basketball coach at Sentral, Fenton. He died in September 1999 at the age of 60 after battling cancer.
His legacy lives on through all of his former players who work in education or as basketball coaches today.
Still to this day, many of his former Diagonal players gather the week of the state tournament at one of Tassell’s favorite establishments in Des Moines, where they share memories of coach Tassell and catch up with each other.
Playing together under coach Tassell forged a bond among many of the players that lasts to this day.
“It was probably the reason I’ve been involved in basketball to this day, is the experiences from that team and all of our teams. It was a special time in your life,” McNutt said. “Most of our teammates, we’ve kept in touch over the years, so you kind of create some lifelong friendships.”
Several members of the team organize an annual basketball tournament in Diagonal in memory of the late Justin Jacobson, a teammate of theirs on those 1989 and 1991 teams.
For many in Diagonal, those teams created lasting memories.
“It was very special. It’s just something as a player, you dream of doing and whether you’re head coach, assistant coach, it doesn’t make any difference. To actually have it happen, it was so special,” Teply said. “It was great to be a part of it. It was quite an experience and something I was definitely glad I was able to be a part of.”
McNutt wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.
“I think we had it pretty lucky growing up, being in a little town like that. Everybody knew everybody. We played basketball year round. We had access to the gym about any time we wanted to. That’s one thing that’s special about Diagonal,” he said. “I feel like we were pretty lucky and fortunate to grow up in that type of environment. I feel pretty lucky to call Diagonal home.”