Rich Owens recalls ‘The Perfect Wave’ in 1990
Editor’s note: Rich Owens is the former volleyball coach at South Tahoe High who led the Vikings to their only Nevada state volleyball championship in 1990. He later made Whittell into a volleyball power. The retired fire chief is still involved in coaching, helping former STHS setter Kelly (Magee) Lehr’s Las Vegas Day School Scorpions’ seventh- and eighth-grade team.
Twenty years ago in the fall of 1990, a perfect wave of coaching formed in South Lake Tahoe, and the Vikings’ volleyball team swept across Nevada for an undefeated season and Class 3A championship – then the highest level in the state.
It was an unprecedented moment in high school sports history; a gathering of high-level coaching knowledge and skill never seen in high school athletics before or since. South Tahoe was led by head coach Rich Owens, a former pro beach player, who would culminate his ninth-and-final year at the Vikings’ helm with 239 career wins and 69 defeats.
The foundation of this championship team was set by Michelle Reilly, who had coached all of the girls at South Tahoe Middle School, and then moved up to the high school as Owens’ assistant and JV coach. It was Reilly’s work the previous year with sophomore setter Tricia Cloutier that allowed Cloutier to move into a starting position and cement a solid link with five other starts – all seniors.
However, it was the volunteer assistant coach that provided remarkable quality to the Vikings’ staff. Allison Keeley, who was a recent college gradate who played volleyball, asked Owens if she could show up at the offseason open gyms and help out. Keeley was trying to determine if she wanted to pursue a coaching career.
Keeley made a breakthrough contribution, suggesting that the team run a 4-2 offense. She also was an invaluable asset in teaching defense and passing. Keeley later moved on to become the head coach at Villanova University and is now the head coach at UNLV, where she annually directs the Rebels to the NCAA tournament.
The other volunteer assistant was a legend in volleyball – Gene Selznick. Owens grew up on the beaches at Santa Monica watching Selznick become “The Father of Beach Volleyball” and a Hall of Fame player, both on the beach and indoors, where he captained two Olympic teams. Selznick dedicated himself to helping the Vikings’ hitters, spending countless hours teaching them to see the block and hit hard around it.
Owens was often asked by opposing coaches, “Who’s that old guy that’s helping you?” He enjoyed watching their jaws drop open at the reply.
The 1990 team was a veteran one led by senior Michele Cloutier, who had been on the varsity since her sophomore season. Cloutier prospered in her career by playing alongside Kim Gebott, a Division I scholarship recipient who hit the ball so hard that her opponents were literally knocked down by her spikes and often scrambled and turned away as she hit the ball.
This mentoring, and Selznick’s tutelage made Cloutier the 1990 Nevada AAA most valuable player with an almost unbelievable hitting average of .765. The front-row setters, Tricia Cloutier and Heather Sloan (also the team’s best blocker), were quick at the net to attack opponents’ miscues. The outside hitters – Michele Cloutier, Kris Lease, Sherri Johnson and Stacy Henninger – put forth a dazzling blend of shots that were always directed inside or around opposing blockers.
The Vikings’ strength was passing and defense, and it was anchored by 5-foot-1 Lara Leitner, also the starting catcher on the softball team who was a phenomenal athlete and routinely made spectacular defensive digs and precision passes.
The Vikings were so dominant that they rarely lost a game in a match. Their passing and serving was flawless, and games were often over before the Vikings had a complete court rotation. They simply made no mistakes and capitalized on opponents’ errors.
Nevada volleyball in that era was completely dominated by Las Vegas Clark High School. Clark won championships in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1992. But in 1990 a little California school in the mountains with an unlikely cast of expert coaches and veteran athletes rose up and cut a swath through Nevada high school volleyball en route to the Class 3A state championship.
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