Belmond-Klemme has hired a new girls’ basketball coach. The school announced earlier this year that Derek Varner, a 2010 Northwood-Kensett graduate, would take over the role. Varner comes to Belmond-Klemme after serving the past five years as the girls’ basketball coach at Storm Lake, St. Mary’s. Varner was also hired to serve as a PE teacher in the district.
“My wife (Maya) and I are having a baby, so I wanted to be closer to home; I saw Belmond-(Klemme) had a PE and girls’ basketball opening, so that’s what brings me here,” said Varner.
Though he is new to the Belmond-Klemme community, Varner isn’t new to girls’ basketball. He is heading into his sixth season as a coach and took his previous program, Storm Lake, St. Mary’s, from the bottom to the top. The Panthers were a four-win team his first season in Storm Lake, but by his fourth and fifth seasons, the Panthers were contending for state tournament appearances.
But how Varner become the girls’ basketball coach is a unique story. He didn’t come to St. Mary’s to be the program’s coach. Instead, he came to be the track and baseball coach. But after the then St. Mary’s coach resigned just before the season, Varner was asked and accepted the challenge.
“I played basketball in high school and enjoyed it, so I took that challenge on,” Varner explained. “We won four games that year, they didn’t have a lot of experience, and I had zero experience, but I learned that I loved it and enjoyed it more than track and baseball – it slowly became my passion, and the more I coach, the more I love it.”
Varner coached just one season of St. Mary’s baseball and four seasons of St. Mary’s track before hanging it up in both of those sports to focus on girls basketball – and he’s good at it.
Varner took that four-win, struggling program to new heights in 2021 and 2022. The Panthers were 19-4 two years ago and made the regional quarterfinals. Last year, Varner and the Panthers were ranked in the Class 1A top 10 for much of the season and just missed a trip to state with a 22-2 record, falling to MMCRU, which finished as the 1A runner-up. Varner was also named the Twin Lakes Conference Coach of the Year for the 2021-2022 season.
Taking over the Belmond-Klemme program will be a different experience for the young coach. The most glaring difference is Varner himself. He now has five years of coaching experience to bring to Belmond and is inheriting a program that isn’t far from competing with the best in North Iowa and the Top of Iowa Conference West front runners. Varner’s squad brings back a talented sophomore class led by Addy Lamb, the team’s leading scorer as a freshman scoring 319 total points. They will have just two seniors in Allie Barrus and London Young while bringing back just four others with varsity experience though some were minuscule.
“We have a lot of potential, but we’re still very young, and we still have a lot to learn about the game. We will be running an entirely new system from years past – new offense and defense – different philosophy, said Varner. He continued down that path, “The girls right now are trying to settle in with that and understand the X’s and O’s – I want to grow them as basketball players – we’re working a lot on fundamentals.”
The Top of Iowa Conference, especially in the West, is the Wild West night in and night out. The conference bolsters last year’s Class 1A state champ, Bishop Garrigan. Class 3A regional finalists, Forest City. West Hancock has made multiple state tournament appearances in the past five years, North Union recently made a state tournament appearance, GHV has a new coach and a bright future, and Lake Mills is building.
“You have Bishop Garrigan, who is one of the best teams in the state; other than them, the other teams graduated a lot of seniors, and I think the top of the conference has opened up,” Varner said.”If we can get our team to where we want to be early in the season, we can contend for some of those top spots,” he added.
As far as what Belmond-Klemme fans can expect of their new team? Varner kept it simple: “defense.”
“We like to play a lot of ‘man’ and put pressure on the ball. We will press here and there and take pride in our ‘man’ defense. Offensively we will move the ball and run sets, but everything runs from our defense”, he added.
Varner and the Broncos will get a taste of the TIC West and juggernaut Bishop Garrigan immediately as they open the season on November 29th, hosting the top-ranked Golden Bears.