Richards remembered for love of players, passion of volleyball

By: 
Cody Dalton
Staff Writer

NEWTON — Coach. Leader. Trailblazer. Legend. Friend.

All are words that describe former Fred T. Foard and Newton-Conover head volleyball coach Linda Richards, who passed away this past Saturday after a two-year battle with stage-four ovarian cancer.

In 27 years of coaching, Richards guided the Tigers to four 3A state volleyball championships (1995-97, 2002) and the Red Devils to one 2A state volleyball title (2011) — becoming only the third coach in North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) history to win multiple state titles in volleyball at multiple levels.

Crissi Harrison played volleyball for Richards at Foard from 1996-99, including on two state championship teams.

Harrison said volleyball took on a greater meaning when playing for Richards.

“I did more than just play volleyball. I played for ‘LR,’” said Harrison, the MVP of the 1997 state final. “Playing for ‘LR’ was a privilege. At the time, it looked like long hours, sweating, frustration, repetition and lots of sacrifice, but it was more than that. Playing for ‘LR’ was learning to push oneself, building strength, learning to fight for what you want, teamwork and tenacity. We won, and that was a lot of fun. But ‘LR’ taught us how to win at life.”

Alison Yount, who played for Richards at Foard from 1994-1997 and later followed her as head volleyball coach for the Tigers, remembers her former mentor for her unselfishness and passion.

“There are several words that come to mind when I think of coach Richards — selfless, love, accountability, pride,” Yount said. “She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. Never once did she take credit for a win, but she always took the blame for a loss. She loved fiercely — her family and friends, the game of volleyball and all sports really. She loved to play, and she loved to win. She taught all of us how to be accountable for our actions. She taught us to be good humans, and she was proud of all of us even after we graduated and moved on with our lives — she loved hearing about former players, meeting their husbands and their kids and hearing about their careers and lives. She made each of us feel important.”

Bob Harrison, who served as a long-time assistant coach for Richards from 1993 until her final season in 2014, said her intelligence when it came to the game of volleyball was second to none.

“She was a genius at watching other teams play and figuring out how to beat them,” he said. “She played to other team’s weaknesses and not their strength. She was a genius at using people’s abilities. Maybe a person could serve really well, and during a tight point in game that person would have their opportunity to serve. She prepared her teams for stressful situations in matches by creating them in practice and matches. She taught me to love volleyball, but that the players were more important than winning.”

The only thing in Richards’ life that took a backseat to volleyball was her family, and following the 2002 season, Richards left coaching volleyball at Foard to take care of her mother, Sathel, who needed full-time medical care.

With her passion for the game of volleyball still burning deep, though, Richards served as an assistant volleyball coach at Newton-Conover High School in 2003 before eventually becoming the head coach for the Red Devils the following fall.

Bob Harrison, who remained an assistant under Richards during her move, said the transition from schools was a difficult one.

“In the beginning, it was a challenge,” he said. “There was not a tradition of winning volleyball there (at Newton-Conover). They did not practice on Friday, much less Saturday. Many of the current players that were there at that time quit the team. She coached it exactly like Foard — four-hour practice and three hours on Saturday. She often said she would rather lose with people that wanted to practice and get better than win with people who thought they were good.”

Changing the volleyball culture at Newton-Conover was hard, but Richards was dedicated to the process.

She made sure her players had everything they needed to be successful, and she even paid for her players to attend volleyball camps, bought them shoes and purchased meals on game trips.

“No kid ever did not go to a camp because of money or play because they could not afford shoes,” Bob Harrison said. “No one ever knew she did any of those things. It was not common knowledge.”

That hard work and dedication paid off and in just a few short years time, the Red Devils were finding success on the volleyball court with Richards eventually guiding Newton-Conover to its first and only state volleyball championship in 2011.

“She was truly an influential, tough-loving coach who pushed us to our limits every day,” said former Newton-Conover volleyball player Corbin Evans, who was a member of the 2011 championship team for the Red Devils. “She molded us into better, disciplined players and was able to add another state championship under her belt. I thank her for everything.”

In the years to come, Richards would be showered with a barrage of well-deserved honors.

She received the Doris Howard Female Coach of the Year award in 2012 from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association — one of the highest honors any prep coach can receive in the state.

On Sept. 25, 2013, Richards achieved another important career milestone — recording her 500th career win in a thrilling 3-2 victory against conference rival Bunker Hill.

Following her retirement from coaching in 2014, Richards was named to the 2015 class of the Catawba County Sports Hall of Fame.

“She was our coach, our leader. She pushed us beyond what we thought were our limits,” said former Foard volleyball player Theresa Kabel in a nomination letter for the Catawba County Sports Hall of Fame. “She made a state championship not only a goal, but made it obtainable. It’s been many years since those days on the Fred T. Foard court, but what I learned and accomplished are still a huge part of me today.”

In May 2017, Richards’ drive turned to a new adversary after she discovered she had ovarian cancer.

From her initial diagnosis with cancer until her final days, Richards became a champion for those who were fighting their own cancer battles, writing on the website www.caringbridge.com about her own journey in hopes to inspire others.

She also formed the Linda Richards Foundation in an effort to help “Spike Out Ovarian Cancer.”

Yount said Richards’ positive outlook tells anyone who may not have known the legendary coach everything they needed to know about her.

“She coached us all through her illness,” Yount said. “She was our cheerleader as much as we were her’s these past two years. She taught us how to live, to love and to not take any day we have on this earth for granted. I will forever be grateful for all she taught me as a player, as a coach and as a human.”

On April 5 — three weeks prior to her passing — Richards was in attendance when it was announced that the gym floor at Fred T. Foard High School was being dedicated as “Linda Richards Court” — an accolade deserving of a coach who gave so much of her time on the court to the players and sport she loved so much.

Richards’ life will be celebrated on Sunday afternoon at Fred T. Foard High School following her visitation from 2 to 3:15 p.m.

While she may be gone, Richards’ legacy will be one of both fire and desire on the volleyball court and care and compassion for the people around her.

“I am forever grateful for the life lessons learned on the volleyball court and even more for the person she helped mold me to be,” Crissi Harrison said. “She’s never been just a high school volleyball coach to me. She is my strength.”

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