The National Basketball Association’s world called Alan Iverson the ANSWER for his famous Reebok shoes; but more importantly during times of crisis in tight basketball games, he was the clutch RESPONSE for the Philadelphia 76ers.
AnLocal Rick Cleland, one of the first leaders as a schoolboy at Ukiah High School in 1972, resurrected a long-dead swimming program (since the late 1950s), according to Glenn Erickson. Supposedly, this former team was coached by Hal Gallagher, but more importantly, the last edition of UHS swimming has been maintained to the present day. You could call Rick (the AQUATIC RESPONSE) for his first sports drumming and later as the first water polo coach in 1999 of your Ukiah High School Wildcats. Cleland retired from coaching in 2018. He retired from the class at St. Mary’s Elementary School in June 2021.
I asked for more details on how this swimming program was put together. Here’s Rick:
“Dave Sperry and I and other swimmers (Mark Halverson, Jim Persky) approached Mr. Tully, the manager, who assured us there would be no budget. As seniors, we created the team in 1972.
“We went door-to-door and raised $ 1600 with coach George Sutton who was not receiving any salary as a coach. We went to the local school board, NBL, NCS and it was approved. Also, only a few guys wore speedo suits, but we placed 3rd in the NBL this first year (spring 1973).
In 1999, Rick also started the water polo program with the training of the age group dolphins; these young children. “The pool only had one standard lens, but the holes in the infrastructure were there, so OTS welding built our second lens,” Rick recalls. “They donated parts and labor; bless their hearts! And in 2004 we had enough kids and momentum for the boys / girls team and a JV boys team. I coached for nothing after Principal Phil Gary said, “Go ahead, but no budget.”
Leaving the tributes aside for now, let’s see where Cleland had ventured into to get to where he is today. Rick: “I swam every summer from the age of 8 until I was 17 in the municipal pool, the 35-meter pool at Todd Grove Park. We had a different coach every year between my 8 and 13 years old, until George Sutton came along and gave us some stability. He was a speech therapist for Ukiah Schools, ”comments Rick on a zoom call, sitting in front of photos of his own water polo teams from the past.
“I went to SOC (Southern Oregon College became Southern Oregon University and is now known as Southern University).” These teams have won 9 Western Pacific Championships in a row, and I was on the last four Championships at SOC. From Ashland, Rick went to Portland State University for an MBA, where he played another season of water polo.
These experiences have generated a multitude of opportunities. “These guys get together every year and are lifelong friends. Every two years we try to get to the west coast, where most of the Oregon guys still reside. We had Super Bowl parties at Sports Attic (Cleland and Dave Sperry started this famous watering hole in Ukiah), and in July we meet in Bend, Oregon, where one of my old buddies is having a reunion for them. swimmers / water polo players of this era. Our former coach will be there with over 30 former Oregon athletes.
By 1982, young Cleland was ready for work, but double-digit inflation was wreaking havoc on business. However, marketing for Remco Hydraulics hired him where he remained for 6.5 years. “This is the company that made huge hydraulic cylinders for sale around the world. I swam in a few masters competitions and we had a few kids.
The first titles won by water polo teams at UHS were the girls in 2005 and the boys in 2006. At that time Lee Pantajja was the swimming coach and Rick helped him (2006-09). “Lee is a one man prince,” says Rick. His daughter, Shelby coached with him for 4 years as an assistant, Jill Clark also attended and Tom Surinae also attended.
The coach got emotional when I asked him what he was most proud of. “All the children who have completed the program; so many great names and characters who have been built. We had written on our sweatshirts:
Serve others before yourself;
Integrity in everything we do.
Strive for excellence.
Such a truism that Rick then pointed out about those in the education ranks. “You never know how successful you were as a coach back then. It is after they come back into your life. There’s James Branson who works at Costco and loves it or all the kids that go to college, to study marine biology, etc. I’m just thinking about the great games played… a year later and one person has a good life! ”
Swimming is difficult; water polo is difficult. Some children come to see us without ever swimming. I’m just proud to have been a part of it with them. Many children are lifelong friends, ready to share their stories with me.
Taking the teams to New Zealand and Hungary was definitely a highlight for Cleland. Rick: “One of my roommates at college was a coach in Southern California. And for a period, he was the national coach of the New Zealand team. My son and I went to help coach the SoCal water polo team in New Zealand with my one year old boyfriend.
“Well New Zealand has the biggest age group water polo tournament in the world and I took our UHS team there in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. The girls and boys teams. It was a great experience as they played against some of the best age group teams in the world so the trip was a memorable one for many of these kids. They lived in the dormitories. They had 3-4 different pools and we traveled all over Auckland to play international water polo.
Cleland continues to talk about the influence of international water polo: “Some players have used this experience to get into college water polo. My son played Division 1 water polo at Cal State Long Beach, Tucker Mattern played at the University of the Pacific, and my daughter played at the polo club at UCSB. Many children continued to play SRJC. Rick also took the Ukiah athletes to Hungary in 2016. “We only had 14 kids, enough boys and girls for a full team. We explored all of Budapest in Eastern Europe. It is a national sport in Hungary, so they were greeted with enthusiasm.
Another unique US travel coach arranged for the teams was just outside Seaholm, Oregon (Linn County) on Foster Lake. “You play in the lake with the goals set up there as well as the sideline markers. You play for 2 solid days of games. As one of my teacher friends puts it, “in water polo you travel to exotic places, meet new people who then try to drown you.”
“Do you remember when you were in 7th grade,” Rick asked me? He recently retired after spending 8 years at St. Mary’s School teaching history to 6-7-8 people.
“Melissa Stedman can really throw the lemon,” Rick says of the strong arm of the United States women’s water polo team this year at the Olympics. They have won 3 Olympic titles in a row and will be in contention for gold. In swimming, there is Caleb Dressel who is as good as Biondi and Spitz; trying to reach the levels of Mark Spitz. In polo, Rick suggested watching “the hole” – all the action just in front of each team’s goal standard. This is where the action is… .at the 2 meter mark.
Okay, there were other accolades (tributes) from people as I put “the goods” together on Rick Cleland. New polo coach and former Cleland player Nolan Deumen: “With his background, they should give the pool its name!
Ukiah’s Daphne and Jim Werner: “We’ve known so many shy and withdrawn kids who thrived and seemed to have found their true selves after doing water polo, thanks to Rick.
And Lisa Cavalin, accountant at St. Mary’s School: “Rick Cleland has inspired and motivated hundreds of athletes in Mendocino County. I saw Rick helping athletes who weren’t good swimmers but had the dedication and desire to learn a new sport and they were quickly able to compete with confidence. Not only did he teach his athletes the game of water polo, but he gave them the opportunity to compete in New Zealand and Hungary, helping his athletes to experience different cultures. We feel lucky to have had Rick as a coach and mentor to three of our children.
As a retired teacher and coach, I asked Coach for words of wisdom for the players and students to come. He mentioned What Is Your Greatest Fear by Nelson Mandela, which encourages everyone to step into the limelight and take up the challenge.
I looked and it’s worth printing:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that scares us the most. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? In fact, who don’t you want to be, you are a child of God.
Your small game does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened to narrow down so that other people don’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to manifest the glory of God that is in us. It’s not just for some of us, it’s for everyone. And when we let our own light shine, we are consciously giving others permission to do the same. As we are freed from our own fear, our presence automatically frees others. ”
1994 Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address.
Announcement: And from current water polo head coach, Nolan Decumen “Water polo continues with practice Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 5-7 until the Ukiah Dolphins with a high school season to succeed / follow in August”