Part Six of a 12-Part Series: Moments That Changed Wolverine History
During the 1960’s, Before Woodruff Football’s Glory Years, Varner Led the Lady Wolverines in Shattering barriers, Forming South Carolina’s First Girls Basketball Dynasty
By Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Willie Varner had a soft spot buried deep beneath the outer layers of his tough, no-nonsense persona for which he became synonymous as one of the greatest high school football coaches of all-time.
While one might have been inclined to think that such a vulnerability would be exceedingly difficult to ascertain from a man of his stature and disposition, all one really needed to do was ask Varner about “his girls” and his eyes would light up in a simultaneous coalescing of pride and fondness.
Varner, of course, was always best known for presiding over one of South Carolina’s greatest football machines, winning 10 state championships over his 42-year tenure as the Wolverines’ head coach. Gridiron glory, however, was not his first dynastic achievement.
From 1955 to 1967, Varner simultaneously led the girls’ basketball program, and for half a decade in the 1960’s, created the first lady’s hoops dynasty in the state of South Carolina.
Spurred by many future Hall of Fame players, these ladies of Woodruff High School not only etched their names into the annals of greatness, but also helped break down barriers, shatter stereotypes around female athletes, and open portals of opportunity for those women who would follow in their footsteps.
All with Varner in their corner, their biggest supporter, even if they did not know it then.
Four state championships, in 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1967, were the manifestation of their talent, but the impact they left extends far beyond Woodruff High’s trophy case.
For women in the 1960’s, the game of basketball was much different than it is today.
“During our era we basically played two games of half court,” explained Beth (Rentz) Grant. “On one side of half court were three offensive players from one team and three defensive players from the other team, and vice versa on the other end of the court. We could not cross the half-court line. If a guard was fouled, a forward who was the best free throw shooter from her team took the foul shot on the other end of the court.”
In essence, girls’ basketball was a half-court game where players, by position, were designated as either shooters or defenders. One could not be both simultaneously, and each player was confined to one end of the court based on their designated position or assignment.
That format was a product of its era’s misguided and stereotypical misconceptions of female athletes, but under any circumstance, Woodruff was exceptionally talented, and it showed on the court.
“I think the camaraderie we had on the team, not only were we good friends off the court, but we were good friends on the court,” said Jill (Page) Singleton, who was a junior on the first state championship team in 1963. “When I began to see how easy we were working together on the court and our movements were just falling into place, I think we knew how good we could be.”
The Lady Wolverines, from the outset, had an offensive one-two punch that was simply too much for most teams to handle.
During the first two championship seasons from 1962-64, Grant and Singleton were simply unstoppable on the offensive side of the court. During the 1962-63 season, Grant, a freshman, led the team in scoring with 465 points, an average of 17.9 points per game. Singleton poured in 397 points, a 15.3 per game average. Norma Wall and Jean Simmons were the defensive specialists and steals leaders, and Singleton also led the team in assists as Woodruff defeated Moultrie High School for the championship, 44-40.
“With (Grant’s) left-handed shot and me out front, even though I was much taller than Beth, she had that left-handed hook (shot) that is so hard to guard,” Singleton said. “I was happy being out at the foul line or a little bit further and, you know, I was really comfortable with that.”
She added, “Coach Varner always gave an assist award, and he always thought that was just as important as if you were scoring, and I was lucky enough to win that award several times because if I saw Beth open, and I timed it just when she would cross that center line, she could score every time.”
The dynamic duo of Grant and Singleton teamed up once more during the 1963-64 season, along with Wall and the young and talented Lauren Murphy to help lead the Lady Wolverines to their second consecutive title, this time over St. Andrews, 43-33.
As a sophomore, Grant scored 481 points and Singleton added 362 and a team-leading 39 assists once again.
Grant echoed the thoughts of Singleton, noting that every player showed the utmost support for their fellow teammates and for their roles on the team, a cohesion that drove Woodruff to ever loftier success. Even as the new kid on the block, as Grant put it, she would always be lifted up by her older teammates during those early seasons of her career.
“Coach Varner’s discipline made our teams successful,” she said. “He preached that we play as a team and not as individuals. There was no jealousy and we clicked from the beginning. As a ninth grader, the new kid on the block and playing as a starter, there was plenty of opportunity for upperclassmen to resent my presence. Everyone was very accepting which shows the high caliber of people they were as well as the positive tone that Coach set in his expectations. He continually emphasized unity among his players.”
Grant continued, “1962-63 had been a successful season, but when we beat Roebuck, our biggest rival, we began to believe what Coach said; ‘If you play like you are capable of playing, you can beat anyone’ and we believed him. He said, ‘We will take one game at a time and not rest on yesterday’s laurels.’ That was the recipe for success. The ‘perfect storm’” was beginning.”
During this time, Woodruff High School had yet to become the football behemoth that people know it as today. At the conclusion of the 1963-64 basketball season, Coach Varner had as many basketball championships to his credit as he did in football, and the Wolverines had gone the better part of a decade by that point without a title on the gridiron.
Still, Varner earned the same reputation among the ladies as he had from his football players. He was tough, but he was also fair, if not intimidating. Varner was not going to change his coaching style, yet, his players all agree it helped make them better. There was no discrimination in Varner’s eyes, and all would be coached equally.
“I asked Coach Varner one time why he was so hard on us and he said, ‘Because I want your 100 percent effort’,” recalled Singleton. “And he got it. The way he coached us he stressed the responsibility of everyone pulling their weight.”
Grant already knew about Varner’s methods. She had, after all, heard the stories at home around the dinner table, though, she admitted, nothing could quite prepare her for it until it was experienced personally. Still, she said, the version of Varner the ladies saw was perhaps a bit tamer than that experienced by his football teams.
“Coach Varner’s gruff reputation preceded him,” she said. “My older brother, Jim Rentz, played football, baseball, and track for Coach Varner, so I had heard all the stories. I was both in fear and awe of this giant of a man. When dealing with us girls, he toned his behavior down a notch. There was no name calling or profanity. However, there were many days that I left practice in tears. He didn’t mince words and didn’t mind embarrassing us in front of our peers. When he saw I was upset once, Coach said, ‘I wouldn’t fuss at you so much if I didn’t think you had the ability to be outstanding.’”
And Varner’s basketball teams were outstanding.
Even so, no triumph comes without stumbles along the way.
Following Singleton’s graduation, the 1964-65 Lady Wolverines still emerged as the heavy favorite to win the state championship for a third consecutive season. Alongside Grant, Lauren Murphy had emerged as a star and Woodruff carried a 22-1 record into their semifinal game against Newberry.
On that night, the Lady Wolverines simply could not find the mark as Newberry edged Woodruff for a spot in the finals. It was a tough night for Grant, by then a junior, but she never forgot being consoled by Varner following the game, a behind-the-scenes moment in which the giant showed his gentle side to console his heartbroken player.
“I remember going up to Coach Varner and telling him I was sorry for letting him down,” she recalled. “I cried tears into the lapel on his suit. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, the sun’s going to come up tomorrow and we’ll start over. We’ll build again for the next year. Not a thing we can do about yesterday.’”
One of the incontestable truths anyone who ever played for Coach Varner will tell you is, he was almost always right. On the night in 1965 when the Lady Wolverines fell to Newberry, as he consoled Grant, he was right then, too.
The Woodruff girls returned in 1965-66 with a vengeance. Led by Grant in her final season, the Lady Wolverines rolled to a perfect 23-0 record and their third state title in four years.
The dynasty was completed in 1967 when Woodruff won their fourth title, finishing 22-2, in a season culminated with a victory over Hanahan.
The team, by then, belonged to a new collection of stars as Murphy was on her way to a Hall of Fame career and Brenda (Gossett) Fletcher was both an offensive and defensive force, a trade preached by Coach Varner as a way to build skill and depth with different rotations.
“My senior year, we only had two starters returning from the previous season’s championship so it was supposed to be a rebuilding year,” said Fletcher.
But just like her contemporaries who had come and gone from the first three title-winning teams, Fletcher said the recipe for success remained unchanged.
“There wasn’t any problem working together,” she added. “Somebody’s weakness, another’s strength could help with that.”
The recipe for success practiced by Varner was universal. It worked no matter what sport he coached, but for the 99 young women he coached over 12 years, it gave birth not only to Woodruff’s original sports dynasty, but the first women’s basketball dynasty in state history.
For Fletcher and the 1967 Lady Wolverines, their title would be the last ever won by a basketball team at Woodruff. Hindsight may be 20/20, but it was extra special even then to those who lived it.
“It was very special,” said Fletcher. “Especially since Lauren and I were the only returning starters, and it was special in that sense because I don’t think we were expected to win it again. It was also the last year that Coach Varner coached girls’ basketball.”
By 1967 perceptions had also begun to shift in the basketball world concerning the women’s game. The great Woodruff teams of the 1960’s, in no small part, showed the state, and country, that women could play the same full-court game as their male peers if given the chance.
Just four years later in 1971, the women’s game, both high school and collegiately, was transitioned to the full-court, 5 on 5 format that everyone knows today. In retrospect, Woodruff’s stars of that era wish they had been given an equal opportunity sooner, but know they helped lay the framework for the modern-day game.
“The rules then were discriminatory for the female athlete,” stated Grant. “We were told that, as the weaker sex, we needed these limiting rules and we simply accepted this as truth. I always felt that we were being discriminated against, but we were children of the sixties and were beginning to question the lack of opportunities for female athletes. Basketball and tennis were the only sports in which girls could participate and Coach Varner always said that girls were at a disadvantage because we had no opportunity to play sports year-round like the boys did.”
The years, and decades, that followed Woodruff’s transcendent championship runs would usher in many changes, not just for the game of basketball, but for those who lived out those dream seasons.
Coach Varner stepped away from basketball following the 1967 season to put his full-time emphasis on football and would go on to win seven titles over the following 17 seasons.
Grant graduated from college and became an educator in Woodruff, serving as guidance counselor at Woodruff High School for almost three decades. Singleton lived in Louisville, Ky. for a time, following Varner’s footsteps into coaching, and led her Louisville girls’ youth squad to a city championship. Fletcher’s daughter, Teri Sloan, would become a basketball legend in her own right, playing from 1985-89, and finishing her own Hall of Fame career as the third leading scorer in the history of girls’ basketball at Woodruff.
The tangible marks left by those great teams of the sixties also remain chiseled into the fabric of Woodruff athletic history to this day.
Varner coached the Lady Wolverines to a 208-49-5 record over 12 seasons, Grant ended her career as the all-time leading scorer in school history, and Singleton’s name can be found throughout the record books in a number of statistical categories.
The less-tangible legacy left by the Lady Wolverines of the sixties, however, is far more important.
“It made us stronger, more independent women,” said Singleton. “I am very proud that we helped put Woodruff High School on the map. To know we played our part in the history of South Carolina basketball, in some way, makes me hope we played a part in where women are in sports today and in basketball. We’ve come a long way.”
Perhaps Varner was onto something when he once quipped at a dinner in his honor, “I’ve said it repeatedly, but I always enjoyed coaching girls’ basketball better than football because the girls always tried harder.”