Ex-Greenwave jumper Brynlee Shults talks with coach Paul Orong after one of her jumps.
Photo by Thomas Ranson.
After her family moved from New Mexico to Fallon for her sophomore year, Whitney Skabelund Conger immediately made an impact on the volleyball court and was looking forward to continuing her early success in the winter with the basketball program.
That is, until she met Paul Orong.
“I was going to play basketball in Fallon but caught wind that jumpers were practicing in December. That’s the first time I ever met Paul,” Conger said. “It just blew my mind that a track coach would be willing to spend time months before the season started. He made it so much fun. I only spent three years with him but it felt longer than that.”
Conger, who graduated five years ago and jumped at Utah State for two years, would be the last state champion jumper that Orong coached. After battling an illness for the last couple of years, Orong, 59, died in his sleep Feb. 14, leaving behind a quarter-century of coaching many of Fallon’s most successful athletes.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at The Gardens with a reception to follow. Orong is survived by his wife Randi and his three sons: Brendan, Kalaeb, and Kaydan.
Ex-Fallon track and field coach Paul Orong, who died last month, spent more than 20 years with the Greenwave.
While Conger was Orong’s last state champion, Brynlee Shults would become his last to make it to the NCAA Division I level. Shults is in her final year at Southern Utah University.
“I spent the rest of the practice with a heavy heart recognizing that I was there in that moment because of Paul's commitment to me as a young athlete, beginning all the way in eighth grade,” said Shults, who heard of Orong’s passing minutes before practice. “As a middle schooler, Coach Paul saw my potential as a future asset to the Greenwave track team, and he invited me and a couple other athletes to practice with the high schoolers. He gave me the confidence to develop my athleticism in high school, especially as a triple jumper, and to pursue my dream to be a D1 collegiate athlete.”
Orong, who was a record-setting track athlete in California and jumped his way into the history books at Sonoma State, arrived in Fallon in the mid-1990s. He began coaching football and assisted Steve Heck in the spring by coaching the girls track and field team.
“Paul was a one-of-a-kind coach who had a special way of inspiring kids,” Heck said. “He would dedicate himself to any athlete willing to try, whether they were loaded with talent or could barely trudge forward in a straight line. Time and again, I saw him take athletes and get them to perform beyond what anyone expected. He always looked for ways to give kids their best chance to achieve, whether it was through giving his extra time coaching, fundraising, or just being around to encourage them.”
A NEED FOR A HOF
Years after arriving in the Lahontan Valley in the mid-1990s, Orong frequently commented on the need for the high school to have an enshrinement to honor the Greenwave’s best student-athletes and coaches.
Retired LVN editor and sports editor Steve Ranson covered track at the time and met Orong during one of the team’s practices.
“He was energetic and positive with the team members,” Ranson recalled.
Ranson would call Orong at home or visit him at the field either during or after practice.
“Paul was a good interview, and he knew his kids and their abilities,” said Ranson, who later became a member of the GHOF board. “Many times, though, the interview would veer off track, and we would talk about other topics. One of those topics was starting a Hall of Fame for our school.”
In 2017, his dream of creating a Hall of Fame came true when the First Wave was inducted. The Greenwave Hall of Fame has inducted three classes with a combined class set to be honored this year.
“Paul Orong was one of the most kind and gentle individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” said Judy Pratt, who served as president of the Hall of Fame. “He loved spending time with old and new friends alike. It truly can be said he knew no strangers. Paul was the founder of the Greenwave Hall of Fame and for that, our community will forever be indebted to him along with the many years of coaching.”
Among those in the inaugural classes was Orong’s pride and joy: Olympian Aarik Wilson, who won state in 2001 after nearly jumping out of the pit.
Orong recalled when Wilson competed in the 2008 Olympics that his competitive nature was unmatched. Even playing an arcade game of basketball at Pizza Barn, Wilson wasn’t prepared to lose to his jumps coach.
When Wilson found out about his coach’s news, words were hard to come by.
“Finding the words is still really tough right now but I have spent the past days remembering his smile, caring eyes, his stories, his jokes and all of our good times,” Wilson said. “His laugh will always be one of my favorite memories. I truly do cherish coach Paul and his family. I am lucky to have been able to have him be such a huge part of my life.”
PAUL’S DIFFERENT IMPACTS
It wasn’t just about high school athletics.
In 2005, John Dirickson was an engineer at NAS Fallon who wanted to introduce NFL flag football to Fallon. He brought an Easy-Up to the Fallon Farmers Market on Maine Street, hoping to sign up new players.
Then came Orong, who Dirickson knew because their sons were the same age.
“He immediately started helping us recruit players every week at the Farmers Market,” said Dirickson, who helped Orong start up the Hall of Fame. “Where I was an unknown, Paul seemingly knew everyone. He was trusted and well liked. Most people signed up for the first time because Paul endorsed it. Without Paul, NFL Flag Fallon would have never been half as successful.”
Orong’s effect on his student-athletes would come full circle. Several, including his son, returned to the Greenwave to help coach the track team.
For Conger, she is returning to the pits as a coach for a small team in Arizona. When she found out that she would be coaching this season, Conger was going to reach out to Orong. Although he’s no longer around, Conger still recalls many of the drills and lessons taught during her three years.
“Paul definitely inspired me to be a high school coach,” said Conger, who last talked to Orong during a dialysis treatment last year. “It was very strange timing. I was talking to Brynlee and we were brainstorming the drills Paul taught us. It feels like we started from rock bottom and even though we went Division I and continued on and triple jumped, I don’t think I learned too incredibly much more than what Paul taught me. Especially in the triple jump, I learned 80 to 90 percent in my high school days.”
But Orong was more than a coach and mentor. He had a lot to give to anyone who was willing to listen. He wanted everyone to feel welcome and it didn’t matter if you were not the best athlete.
“My biggest takeaway was just to make others feel unconditionally welcomed and so comfortable that they’re OK messing up around you,” she said. “You don’t have to be good to try. He was so loving and welcoming.”
A GoFundMe page has been established to assist the family with medical and funeral expenses. The page can be found at https://tinyurl.com/2p8fpfan.