By CHRIS BATEMAN
Nate Rien, who in four years turned around Oakdale High School's once-ailing basketball program, is Columbia College's new head coach.
The 26-year-old Rien replaces Andy Vasher, who was fired after an internal investigation uncovered violations of several Central Valley Conference rules. The probe also led the CVC to place the program on a year's probation.
The college announced Rien's one-year appointment yesterday.
"Yes, it will be a challenge," said Rien, who was chosen for the now-part-time position from a field of seven applicants and whose pay has yet to be determined. "But I'm looking forward to leading the program back to a position of prominence."
Rien will coach while holding down a full-time job as a history teacher at Oakdale High and commuting here for practices and games. And he'll do so with players largely from the valley-and- foothill Yosemite Community College District.
"There are a lot of good local high school players in the district," said Rien, who will bring three starters from last year's 21-7 Oakdale team with him in the fall. "We'll be happy to listen to out-of-state athletes who are interested in Columbia, but we're not going to go looking for them."
Out-of-state players have long been staples on winning Claim Jumper teams, but Vasher's treatment of such imported athletes was allegedly what led to the CVC probation and to the successful (103-91) six-year coach's dismissal.
In announcing that the basketball program would survive earlier this month, Columbia College President Jim Riggs said an emphasis would be placed on meeting the needs of local student-athletes.
But Rien yesterday said he would also encourage freshmen from last year's team to return for the 2003-04 season.
"I'll contact them, let them know what's happening here," he said. "I'm definitely interested in having them back as sophomores."
The core of the incoming class, however, will be Valley Oak League co-MVPs Josh Kitchen and Ryan Stevenson and 6-foot-9 center Sebastien Taulbee, all from Rien's successful 2002-03 Oakdale team.
He'll also scour the valley and foothills for high-school grads who will fit into the college's new program.
"What we want is first good people, second good students and then good athletes," Rien said. "That's the way it's always been with me."
His formula has worked at Oakdale High.
Rien a 1995 Oakdale grad who was a 6-foot-3 shooting guard on the school's basketball squad returned to coach in 1999.
The previously mediocre team quickly hit stride under its new coach: The Mustangs have made the playoffs three out of the last four years. In 2002-03, Oakdale went 21-7 (10-2 in the Valley Oak League) and turned out two all-district players.
Although he has yet to choose his staff, Rien said he hopes Eric Esparza his assistant at Oakdale joins him at Columbia's Oak Pavilion next season.
Yes, Rien has heard naysayers predict a poor season ahead. But he dismisses such talk.
"I'm not going to make any predictions, but I can promise you that we will work hard and that we will get better every day," he said. "We will compete."
Rick Francis, Sonora High athletic director and varsity boys basketball coach, had high praise for the new Columbia coach.
"Nathan's a great guy and he'll work his tail off," said Francis, who has faced off against Rien both as a player and as a coach. "He's energetic and he's single, so he'll have all kinds of time. He's a good choice. He'll take the bull by the horns and go get 'em."
On top of that, Francis added, Rien's experience at Oakdale and as a part-time assistant at Stanislaus State last year, "has allowed him to get to know the players in this area really well. That should give him an edge in recruiting.
"We're pleased to have a coach of Nate Rien's caliber join our staff," said George Railey, the college's athletic director. "With his experience and background, we anticipate a great season ahead."
But there's no guarantee Rien will be at the Claim Jumper helm for any more than a season.
"It's a one-year, one-season appointment," said Railey, declining comment on whether the new coach will continue beyond that time.
Also, unlike his predecessors, Rien will not be a full-time college employee with teaching responsibilities. Railey explained the college wanted to hire a coach quickly and that the hiring process for a full-time employee would have taken too long.
Asked if the coach's job could again become a full-time position in the future, Railey declined comment again.
Born and raised in Livermore, Rien earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science from the University of California at Davis and a master's degree in education from National University in Sacramento. He lives in Oakdale.
Rien last season doubled as an assistant men's basketball coach at Stanislaus State, which went 18-11 (13-9 conference) and set school records for most league wins and most home wins in a season.
Earlier, Rien was for two years co-director of Aggie Spring Basketball Clinics at U.C. Davis.
Rien is the seventh coach in Columbia history, following Pete Sullivan (1976-80), Pat Douglass (1980-81), Bob Thomason (1981-85), Denny Aye (1975-94), Jim Saia (1994-96), Glen Hefferman (1996-97), and Vasher (1997-2003).
Douglass is now the head coach at U.C. Irvine, Thomason is the head coach at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Aye now coaches at a community college in Marshalltown, Iowa, and Saia just ended a seven-year run as an assistant at UCLA.