If the annual All-Valley high school wrestling jamboree looked a little like an Owen family reunion, it was. Three of the four Spokane Valley wrestling coaches now are from the same family.
Don Owen, coach of defending State 4A champion University, begins his third decade as coach of the Titans this season. Across the way, older brother John Owen begins his third season coaching West Valley after a six-year stint as head coach at Central Valley and a storied career as head coach at North Idaho College, where he won eight national junior college championships.
Joining the family tradition this season is Tommy Owen, son of John and former wrestler for Don, who takes over this season as head coach at CV.
And while the job is his first as a head high school coach, the younger Owen is far from your average first-year coach.
First, there’s the pedigree. Owen was a three-time state champion and four-time state finalist at U-Hi, and a world junior freestyle champion and national high school champion in 2001. In three seasons wrestling at the University of Minnesota, he twice qualified for the NCAA championships. After two injury-plagued seasons at Boise State, Owen spent the 2006 season as the Broncos’ volunteer assistant coach.
“I think there may be a tendency for people to look at me as a first-year coach and I don’t believe I am,” Owen, 27, said. “I’ve been coaching wrestlers with my father, especially in his wrestling camps, for as long as I can remember.
“While I was at Minnesota, they hired collegiate wrestlers to coach freestyle clubs and I coached one while I was there. Getting this job is a dream come true for me.”
It’s a job Owen plans to keep. He’s finishing a master’s degree in special education and his teaching certificate.
While there is no proof that coaching wrestlers is a product of genetics, you can’t prove that by the Owen family, where there are family members coaching from coast to coast and border to border.
Owen will face two uncles during the Greater Spokane League season: Don’s U-Hi Titans and Tim Owen’s Ferris Saxons. Other uncles will bring teams to tournaments Owen’s Bears will attend, including the annual Tri-State tournament at NIC later this month.
“And I have cousins who are getting into coaching wrestling,” Owen added. “I have a cousin, Curtis, who’s an assistant coach at Chandler High School in Arizona and another cousin, Pat, who’s the assistant coach at Harvard.
“As competitive as my family is, I’m going to love getting after my dad on a wrestling mat. And I’m going to love wrestling Don. I’m hoping I can get a little success under my belt before we all start getting together for Christmas so I can hold my own with them.”
With dual matches and high-powered tournaments now set to begin, Owen already feels right at home in the CV wrestling room.
“I feel like I was given a cheat sheet here,” he explained. “These seniors all wrestled for my dad his last year here and they already know what to expect from me. I came in and worked with them their freshmen year, too, so I know some of them.
“To be able to walk into your first job and have this kind of head start is special.”
As a coach, Owen said, his teaching style is a reflection of his father.
“My dad and Don are both exceptional coaches, but their styles are at the opposite ends of the spectrum,” he said. “Don is a system coach and you’re not going to find a better system than the one he’s built at University. My dad is more of an individual coach and he tries to help each individual wrestler find a way to be successful. He always tells them that there is no one way to wrestle and he believes that.
“My dad was my coach from the beginning and he’s the one who taught me how to wrestle. I only wrestled for my uncle for four years. But the one thing I take from both of them is their passion for the sport. They both love wrestling and they love to teach wrestlers.”
The Bears will be put to the test from the opening Greater Spokane League match, where they drew Mead.
“We’ve got Mead, who’s going to be a powerful team this year,” Owen said. “Then we go right into the Inland Empire tournament at CV where we’ll see University, a defending state champion, Hermiston, who is, I believe, a defending state champion, and Coeur d’Alene, a state champion. Then we go right from there into Tri-State, so we’re going to see what we’re made of right away.”
One of Owen’s leaders this season is senior Jarod Maynes, who place fourth at state a year ago.
“Jarod is looking to become the first four-time state placer at Central Valley since Shane Cunanan, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment,” he said. “Jarod has a real shot at winning a state championship this year and we’re working hard to make that happen.
Cunanan, who won a state title for the Bears as a high school wrestler, placed sixth in the NCAA tournament in 2003 while wrestling for the University of West Virginia. He’s now an assistant wrestling coach at Lahainaluna High School in Maui, Hawaii.
While he’s new to having the head coach’s whistle, Owen knows he has his work cut out for him.
“I think the hardest thing to do as a wrestling coach is to teach a young man how to be a winner,” he said. “The difference between placing first and fourth at the state tournament is so small. It’s about eliminating small mistakes.
“I’ve told my kids that as long as they go out and leave everything they have on the mat for six minutes, they’ve done everything I’ve asked of them. It takes a tremendous amount of will and desire to win in this sport. That’s where having someone like Jarod in the wrestling room gives us a big leg up.”