Don’t look now, but UNO hockey may be on the verge of making the kind of noise and capturing the kind of attention traditionally reserved for Nebraska football and Creighton basketball. My Reader (www.thereader.com) story charts some of the reasons why this already has beenand continues being a special season for the program. For the first time this late in the season UNO’s nationally ranked and in a contending position for accomplishing big things in their conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament. The Mavs play their last regular season home series this weekend, March 6-7, at the CenturyLink and it’s an important opportunity to keep momentum and maintain a solid spot heading into the post-season.
UNO Hockey Staking its Claim
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since launching hockey in 1997 to subsidize its non-revenue generating sports UNO’s netted a nice return on investment. Maverick hockey crowds rank among the best nationally, with annual ticket revenues of $2 million. When the school dropped football and wrestling in 2011, it added pressure on hockey to be the signature sport.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has enriched the city’s hockey legacy. The minor league professional Omaha Knights (1939 to 1975) began the love affair. The amateur Omaha Lancers (1986 through today) continued it. UNO found its niche as Neb.’s only collegiate hockey team. Despite gritty performances and many upsets its first 18 seasons. UNO didn’t emerge as a title threat. Until perhaps now.
Coach Dean Blais, tasked with making Mav hockey nationally relevant when hired in 2009, has guided UNO through conference changes, player suspensions, stars leaving for the NHL and solid if not stellar play. Now, for the first time this late in the season, he has UNO contending. His team’s defeated several highly ranked clubs, splitting four games, three in overtime, with perennial power North Dakota, where Blais won two national titles.
His best offensive player, sophomore forward All-America candidate Austin Ortega, recently tied the NCAA single-season record with his nation-leading 10th game-winning goal.
UNO, 17-10-3 at press time, climbed to No. 4 in the Division I ratings. It’s led the powerful National Collegiate Hockey Conference most of the year. Entering the final regular season home series versus Colorado College at CenturyLink Center, UNO hopes for momentum that carries into the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and the NCAA tournament.
As UNO hockey enters the local sports conversation reserved for Husker football and Bluejay basketball, it may establish itself as a must-see attraction and traditional power. The timing’s apt since it gets its own facility next year when the UNO sports arena opens on the Ak-Sar-Ben campus, where the Knights played. Touted underclassmen helping drive this special season were recruited to the new venue.
Sophomore center Jake Guentzel is enjoying the ride, “We’re more on the map, more fans are coming, so it’s pretty special.” He’s not surprised by the success. “I thought we had the players to do it, I just didn’t know if we had the experience. We’re bottom-heavy with freshmen and sophomores but we’ve adapted pretty well. We’ve been fortunate we’ve had the opportunity to play and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
He says preseason predictions of UNO finishing sixth in the league provided motivation. He credits an early road trip to Western Michigan, where UNO got a sweep. as a confidence-booster and bonding experience. The right mix of leadership has team chemistry just right.
Senior goalie Ryan Massa has waited four years for UNO to break out. “It’s nice to finally see all the hard work pay off for the guys.” He feels a humbling exhibition loss to Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in October was a necessary rude awakening. “It kind of opened the new guys’ eyes to understand the level we’re playing at and helped them grow and mature a little bit faster than maybe anticipated.”
Senior forward Dominic Zombo likes this team’s make-up. “I do see a component I haven’t seen in the past. We’ve got a really tight-knit group. We don’t have any passengers here, nobody’s just going through the motions, everybody’s here to get better, to win games. Every single guy’s committed to their job. That’s what makes us so competitive as a team.”
Blais doesn’t know if UNO’s truly arrived but he’s confident it soon will.
“I would think so but you never know from year to year. This is a special group of guys and for them I hope we win a league championship, get to the Target Center (home to the Frozen Faceoff), advance to the national tournament. Those are benchmarks for a program and our seniors know they’re paving the way for the underclassmen. Hopefully getting to the tournament isn’t a big accomplishment, it’s an expected accomplishment every year.
“We have a new arena coming that’s going to take the program to another level.”
UNO athletic director Trev Alberts says the arena signifies that Mav hockey matters.
“You can tell people hockey is very important to your school but if you don’t even have a place you can call home and practice in, it’s difficult to get the kind of talent in here you ultimately need.”
He says the arena will put the program on near equal footing with its stiffest competitors.
“When I hired Dean I really wanted to have somebody who’d been there, done that, who knew what it took to win at the highest levels.
There’s built-in disadvantages to being in Omaha, so far from hockey hotbeds. I just feel good we’re finally able to give he and his staff some tools necessary to assemble the kind of talent we hope to have here.”
Having its own intimate space will benefit UNO, which shares the huge CenturyLink with Creighton. The average hockey crowd of 8,000 downtown still leaves the venue half-empty. That same crowd fills the new arena. It should spike demand from fans and corporate sponsors.
Die-hard hockey fan Ernie May, who’s never missed a UNO home game, says, “I can’t wait to get into our own building. I think that’s going to be fantastic and make the interest grow.”
“Clearly this will be the best opportunity we’ve ever had to have a branded-out facility of excellence our student athletes can compete in,” says Alberts.
Omaha hockey historian and former UNO sports information director Gary Anderson says, “They’re going to go into an arena exactly the right size they need for the fan base they’ve created.” He says there was never any doubt Omaha could sustain college hockey. “When the program was born you still did have a lot of old-time hockey fans and the Lancers were around the peak of their success, so consequently UNO built a really good fan base right from the start.”
That loyal base bodes good times ahead.
“I’ve been absolutely amazed and humbled by the support UNO hockey fans give to this team, even in some pretty poor years,” Alberts says. “Our fans are hungry and we’re hungry to give them what they want, which is a consistent winner on the ice.”
May enjoys that the Mavs are meshing to put themselves in position to make history: “For me this year almost has as much excitement as the first years we had hockey.”
Coach Blais is trying to ensure his team attends to all the details heading into the intense post-season, where little things become magnified and championship teams find ways to win. UNO getting swept on the road at St. Cloud State (Feb. 20-21) resembled the late season swoons it’s suffered in past years.
“I don’t know if we have any more than we’ve given already,” he says. “How many times can you go to the well? My teams at North Dakota could operate at 70 percent and still win. We’re not there yet. Our margin for error’s slim. We’ve got to be all engines going, we can’t have one engine not running. We’re darn close. It starts with recruiting and we’ve been lucky enough to land some dandies.”
Even if UNO should reach the top, he says, “it’s one thing to get there, it’s another thing to stay there.” First things, first.
Massa says, “Every single one of us believes in our potential. None of us doubts we can be playing at the Boston Garden (site of the Frozen Four) competing for a national championship this year. We’ve played against the best all year and we’ve done well against the best.”
Zombo can’t imagine what a UNO hockey title would mean.
“I wouldn’t be able to explain. I’ve never been a part of anything like that that’s a dream.”
UNO’s dream ride continues at home Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7. Listen on 1180 The Zone 2.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
As much as I enjoy writing about the arts and artists, I equally enjoy writing about athletics and athletes. I finally caught up with a former football great from Nebraska, Joe Arenas, who has never really gotten his full due. If the name isn’t familiar, it’s because his professional and college exploits happened about 60 years ago. And though he was a very fine player – so good that he is still among the NFL’s all-time leaders in career kick return average – his jack of all trades verstality as a returner, running back, receiver, and defensive back made it hard for him to really stand out except as a returner. When you come right down to it, how many returners other than maybe Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, and Devin Hester really made a dent in the national consciousness? Sayers was of course a great running back in addition to being a great returner. The other thing working against Arenas was that he had two future NFL Hall of Fame teammates, in Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, who got most of the offensive touches out of the backfield. Before playing pro ball Arenas starred in the single-wing at then-Omaha University, where again he did a little of everything. In the single-wing Joe played a half-back spot in that offense but he did everything a quarterback does. Before he ever played college ball Joe served as a U.S. Marine in World War II. He was wounded at Iwo Jima. My story about Joe for El Perico newspaper refers to the fact that Arenas was among a small number of Hispanic football players who made a mark in the game. I also reference how Omaha U., which today is the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is where another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, played quarterback in an era when that was very rare at a predominantly white university. What I didn’t mention in the article is that a third athlete of color with local ties, Wilburn Hollis, played quarterback at two mostly white institutions, first at Boys Town and then at the University of Iowa. I was delighted to find Joe a still vital man in his late 80s.
Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
The longer out it is from the University of Nebraska at Omaha dropping football in 2011, the more its gridiron greats recede into obscurity.No one should forget (Guadalupe) Joe Arenas.This son of Mexican immigrants was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and grew up in Lincoln, Neb. during the Depression. Small but determined, Little Joe didn’t play organized football until college yet he still made the National Football League. The high school basketball standout made the varsity hoops squad at the University of Nebraska before transferring to then-Omaha University, where he played both sports, becoming one of America’s most accomplished Hispanic athletes.
He won All-American football honors as UNO’s do-everything offensive cog (1947-1950), averaging 200-plus yards total offense as a junior and finishing sixth in the nation in total offense as a senior. As the go-to back in the single-wing, a precursor to the spread formation, he received snaps from center, called plays, ran, handed-off, passed, caught and punted the ball. He returned kicks and played defense, too.
Two decades later another athlete of color, Marlin Briscoe, became the first black starting quarterback at UNO and in the NFL.
San Francisco made Arenas UNO’s first NFL draftee as an 8th round pick. He enjoyed seven productive years (1951-1957) at halfback, returner and defensive back. He once led the league in kickoff returns and retired as the all-time returns leader. He still ranks ninth in league history in career kickoff return average (27.3).
“If I got one or two blocks, that’s all I needed,” Arenas says. “Just get me started and I’d try to maneuver around and shake ‘em off. Just shifty, that’s all. I used to get out early to see teams practice. I’d study their punter and kicker – where they hit it, how far they hit it, getting to know their habits, so I’d know where to stand and what to do.”
After fielding the ball, he let his smarts, instincts and athletic ability take over, netting career marks of 3,798 kickoff return yards and 774 punt return yards. He brought back both a punt and a kickoff for scores. From scrimmage he compiled 987 rushing and 675 receiving yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown.
Upon leaving the 49ers he laid off two years to mend injuries before trying out with the Boston Patriots of the new AFL. He soon retired for good. En route home to San Francisco his back flared up and he recuperated in Houston, falling in love with his physical therapist. He stayed, they married and the couple raised two daughters.
He remained in Texas coaching football, working with receivers for College Football Hall of Famer Bill Yeoman at the University of Houston. In the 1980 Cotton Bowl the Cougars upset Nebraska 17-14 when an Arenas receiver made the game-winning grab in the end zone with 19 seconds left. Arenas sent several proteges to the NFL.
Long before any of that, he put athletics on hold and his life on the line serving in the U.S. Marines. He took part in the amphibious landing on the Japanese-fortified volcanic island of Iwo Jima, where he and his fellow “no guts-no glory” grunts staged the bloodiest assault of the Pacific theater. American troops storming the beach were pinned down under heavy fire. Arenas dug in and prayed.
“I got hit the very next day. It was a shrapnel wound and they carried me down the beach, where I got evacuated, and I’m glad I did because that was quite some campaign there. Oh man, I’ll tell you, I was probably fortunate to get hit and get the hell out of there. All my buddies got shot up.
“That was the worst place anybody could have been. The Marine Corps lost more on that island than they ever lost anywhere. The Japanese had the advantage. They were up on two highlands and we were down in a valley. They could see everything going on right down below them. All they had to do was look down their scopes. They were picking us off like clay pigeons. But we had enough force and enough people and material and guts (to prevail).”
He didn’t let his back wound slow his athletic career. He competed with the best, including three 49ers teammates who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle.
Playing in an era before collective bargaining and free agency, he never made more than $10,000. Like other players then Arenas worked a regular off-season job to make ends meet. He was a salesman for spice giant McCormick and Company.
He “never thought” himself or the few other Hispanic players active then, like Tom Fears or Eddie Saenz, as groundbreakers. He’s proud Hispanics have since shined: Joe Kapp, Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Jeff Garcia. At 49er gatherings he’s met franchise legends John Brodie, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice. But there, like at UNO alumni events, few teammates are around. “There’s not too many left,” says Arenas, who at 89 is now a widower living in a Webster, Texas retirement center.
Coming back to Neb. gets harder. Besides, there’s no more football at UNO. “I’m really saddened by UNO not playing football anymore.”
He still enjoys watching the game on television, the coach in him critiquing players’ techniques and lack of hustle. He still signs bubble gum cards with his likeness on them that fans and collectors send him.
Gone, but not forgotten.
My latest story about Omaha’s own world boxing champion, Terence “Bud” Crawford, who is fresh off his Nov. 29 title defense in his hometown. I was at the CenturyLink for the fight and some of what I experienced there is in this story for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/). It’s on the stands now. My blog contains several other articles I’ve written about Terence.
Sparring for Omaha: Boxer Terence Crawford Defends His Title in the City He Calls Home
In a class by himself
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Terence “Bud” Crawford grew up a multi-sport athlete in North Omaha, but street fighting most brought out his hyper competitiveness, supreme confidence, fierce determination and controlled fury. He long ago spoke of being a world champion. That’s just what he’s become, too, and he’s now sharing his success with the community that raised him and that he still resides in.
A gifted but star-crossed amateur boxer, he turned pro in 2008 and for years he fought everywhere but Omaha. It was only after winning the WBO title last March against Ricky Burns in Scotland, he finally returned home to fight as a professional. As reigning champion Crawford headlined a June 28 CenturyLink Center card. He successfully defended his title with a rousing 9-round technical knockout over Yuriorkis Gamboa before 10,900 animated fans.
He made a second victorious defense here Nov. 29 against challenger Ray Beltran. Before a super-charged crowd of 11.200 he dismantled Beltran en route to a 12-round unanimous decision. The convincing win made him Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year.
Even with everything he’s done, Crawford, who’s expected to move up to the welterweight division, says, “I’m hungry because I want more. I don’t want to just stop at being good, I want to be great. I want to keep putting on performances that will take me to that next level.”
This warrior believes winning is his hard-earned destiny, saying, “If I fight like I want to fight, can’t nobody beat me.”
Through it all he remains devoted to community. Residents reciprocate by turning out in droves, showering him with rock star adulation.
Chants of “Crawford, Crawford, Crawford” and shouts of “We love you” filled the arena Nov. 29. When the ripped, goateed Crawford attacked, fans went wild. He fed off the dynamic energy and high theatrics, his counterpunching, dancing style a perfect fit for the pulsating music, colored lights, fight video montages and amped-up crowd. When the decision was announced family and friends swarmed him in the ring. He climbed the ropes to acknowledge the fans, his face beaming and his gloved hands raised overhead, waving. On his way way to the dressing room, the title belt around his waist and his boy at his side, he humbly accepted congratulations and posed for pictures with admirers.
Known for cool under fire, he doesn’t let the pressure of the big stage get to him.
“With him, man, he don’t give a damn if the fight’s in hell, it’s just another day in the gym,” co-manager Brian “BoMac” McIntyre says. “He knows exactly where he wants to go in this game and he knows how to get there and what it’s going to take to get there.”
North O has a history of producing great athletes. Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green all came out of the same poor neighborhood as Crawford. But where the others achieved their real fame outside here, Crawford’s doing it in his hometown. Now regarded as the best fighter ever from Neb. and as one of the best, pound for pound, in the world today, he’s become a darling of HBO, whose telecasts of his last few bouts scored major ratings. He’s also become a true people’s champion.
His local loyalty is seen in his B&B Boxing Academy located in the heart of The Hood. He wants it to be a launching pad for more champions.
“I want to show we’re not just stepping stones, we do have talent in Omaha and I’m not the only one with the talent – it’s just that people have never been given opportunities like I’ve had.”
He’s “lost count” of the aspiring boxers trying to follow his path. He wants boxing to get kids off the street the way it did for him. “I want to be a positive influence and show them a different route.” His partner in the gym, McIntyre, says they aim “to develop young kids into young men and young men into responsible adults,” adding, “We want to let everyone know if we can make it from this community they can, too.”
Treven Coleman-Avant is among the fighter stable there trying to emulate Crawford’s ring success.
“I pray for many years to come hell be the champion and I plan to come right up along with him,” he says.
It’s not all about fighting. Near Thanksgiving Crawford gave away free turkeys outside the gym, personally greeting recipients and receiving hugs, kisses, thank-yous and God-bless-yous in return.
“If I’m going to have my name out there I want to be in the middle of it interacting with the people I make happy,” he says.
“Much appreciated,” a woman in line offered.
“He’s not forgotten us,” another woman said.
“He takes his and gives back to where he started from,” a man added.
Shawntay Crawford says of her brother, “He’s a loving, caring person.”
“You see him being a true champion outside the ring and that’s what its all about,” Coleman-Avant says.
Bud simply says, “We all make the community and I feel like when you’re going good – give back and help out.”
The fighter takes care of his own. McIntyre. among several Omaha-based coaches and trainers with Team Crawford, says, “Bud’s assured me we’re never going to fall apart. He’s given us that security we’re here to stay.”
Crawford’s also revived boxing in Omaha, where the sport was dormant until his emergence. Few thought Omaha could support a world title card.
“A lot of people doubted and now they’re believers,” Crawford says.
He expects to fight again in Omaha for Top Rank and HBO.
“As long as I keep performing to my best abilities, put on a great show and as long as everybody keeps coming out to support me of course they’re going to keep coming back. Why wouldn’t they?”
“LIke I always say, there’s no place like home.”
Follow the fighter at teamterencebudcrawford.com.
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.
The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a signifcant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yer as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.
Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, wth one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feated at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at his most recent title defense, you knew that Crawford had made it.
I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjpy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.
I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for two years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film Nebraska, one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world lightweight boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the second time in five months. The 11,000-plus fans on hand Saturday night at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating a very tough challenger in Ray Beltran. Every time the pressing Beltran tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, the champ used his superior quikness and agility to turn the tables on Beltran with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing the attacking, thwarting the few rallies Beltran mounted and frustrating his foe at every turn. It was an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about Bud being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.
The main event turned into a love-in and as much love as the crowd gave to one of their own Bud gave it right back. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game.
Look for my new story about Bud in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. I’ll have something in a upcoming issue of The Reader as well. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at these links:
You can find excerpts of my many stories about Alexander Payne on my blog. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. You can preview the book at, www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga,
High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature
I have long followed the athletic programs of the major universities in my home state of Neb. Thus, I have noted with interest the emergence of African-Americans in collegiate volleyball yet their absence from the University of Nebraska’s elite program. To my knowledge NU volleyball has never had a black player on its roster, which is strange because its peer programs increasingly do. One need only look at the volleyball program at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, to see evidence of this trend. CU has three black players on its roster. I profile one of them, Leah McNary, in this story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/), not because she’s black but because she’s a skilled player who has helped the Bluejays establish themselves as equals to the big girls down in Lincoln. An art major interested in perhaps one day going into art therapy, McNary comes from an athletic family but she wasn’t even that keen on playing competitive athletics in high school while growing up in Florida. But when she settled on volleyball and enjoyed success with a club team she found herself commiting to CU. During her four years at the Jesuit school she’s helped elevvate the volleyball program and along the way she’s had the opportunity to travel to China, Nicaragua, Mexico, New York City, et cetera.
High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Leah McNary has been there for much of Creighton volleyball’s ascendancy from weak little sister program in the shadow of Big Red to all-grown-up competitor holding its own.
“It’s exciting being a part of a process of building a program,” she says. “We’ve progressed a long way. I think we are up there with them (Nebraska) now.”
The Florida native came to Omaha after only three years of serious volleyball competition. Many colleges missed on this classic late-bloomer. What she lacked in refined skills she made up for with athleticism, something that runs deep in her family. Two older sisters were major college scholarship track athletes and her father played college basketball. Though her mother didn’t play competitive college sports, she was a cheerleader. McNary was leaning to cheerleading herself after finding basketball too physical but settled on volleyball.
Her club play brought her to the attention of CU head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, who couldn’t help but see what gets everyone pumped about McNary – explosive jumping ability and ridiculous elevation. Combined with a long arm span and the ability to strike the ball with great force, McNary has all the tools of an elite outside hitter. Except she’s 5’10 – 5’8 3/4 without shoes. Despite being susceptible to the block, she’s been an elite attacker all four years at CU and she’s heavily contributed to the Bluejays becoming a Top 25-caliber team and making two consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.
Where CU invariably got swept by the Huskers, they regularly take a set now. They even beat NU in an exhibition. McNary’s a reason why CU now hangs with the big girls, though they’ve struggled against ranked foes this year.
She nearly bypassed athletics altogether to follow her true passion – the arts. She’s played music from a young age and she’s now a studio art major. She’s interested in doing art therapy one day. Booth says it’s the first time she’s coached someone who identifies as an artist. That artistic inclination is expressed in McNary’s highly emotional and empathetic nature. She’s channeled her feeling-creative side into being an intense competitor, though her emotions still get the better of her. Booth says McNary’s at her best on the court when she has her emotions in check and her confidence on high.
After a solid start to this senior season McNary’s scuffled. Her season attack percentage is well below .200 owing to excessive hitting errors. Getting kills has never been a problem but even finding clean hits is a chore lately. Aware she’s pressing, she’s intent on correcting her mechanics, particularly her approach to the net. A sign of how far the program’s come is that even a year ago CU would have been in trouble with McNary slumping like this but Booth’s built such quality depth the team’s dominating Big East play (8-1) and doing fine overall (15-7) despite McNary’s decreased production.
Given her history she’s sure to get back on track.
“Coach says we’re a really resilient team and I think I’ve become a resilient player. When obstacles and tough situations present themselves I keep pushing through. I’m a very determined person. Working hard is something I take pride in. I want to be the best at whatever I do, even in art. That’s driven me. I think my drive is what pushes me over the edge. I have such a competitive edge because I hold myself to high standards. It hurts me to not do well ”
She’s led the team in kills each of the past two years and is on pace to finish in the top five in kills all-time at the school. She carried CU to its only Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in 2012 and to a second place finish in its inaugural Big East campaign last year.
Pegged to redshirt as a freshman, McNary developed so quickly and the team struggled so badly that three weeks into that season Booth inserted her into a match for the first time. It just happened to be against in-state rival and perennial measuring stick Nebraska. She proved she belonged and hasn’t looked back since.
“I was new to such a high level of volleyball. I think I’ve grown into being a confident player.”
One reason why she stood out in the NU match is that she was the lone African-American on the court. That situation occurs less and less frequently as volleyball becomes more inclusive.
“I feel like the sport’s getting more diverse, which is awesome. It’s an encouraging thing,” says McNary, who idolized Destiny Hooker growing up and now has two black teammates in Marysa Wilkinson and Brittany Lawrence. NU has its first ever black commit in Tiani Reeves. McNary hopes more girls who look like them are inspired to pursue the sport.
A big early confidence boost came between her freshman and sophomore years when she made a spring 2012 developmental trip to China with NU’s Alicia Ostrander to train with Chinese national players.
“I was so nervous. I wondered, What if I’m not good enough? It actually ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I for sure learned a high level of play. I think it made me appreciate the sport more.”
The grueling, multi-hour practices steeled her for anything.
“When I got back for summer two-a-day workouts it seemed so much easier. I had already prepared myself for a really tough season. China was like my preseason before preseason. I felt like I was more prepared, especially conditioning-wise, and I found myself getting after it more because everything there you had to go one-hundred percent.
“That trip showed me what I was capable of. It showed me what could be my future if I worked hard.”
As a sophomore she made first team All-MVC and was named to the league’s All-Tournament team. Last year she was a first-team All-Big East selection. She and teammate Kelli Browning were selected by USA Volleyball to participate in the U.S. Collegiate National Team program.
She now has aspirations of playing professionally (beach volleyball) after college. Major expectations spring from her high-achieving, super competitive family. Her mother’s a county judge in Florida.
“It makes me believe I can do anything in life.”
McNary, who has a heart for children, enjoyed a team trip to Nicaragua last summer that saw her and her teammates train and play matches but also do community service work with kids. She’s also made an Athletes in Action trip to Mexico that involved service work.
A perk about playing in the Big East is getting to visit places like New York City and the nation’s capital.
McNary’s started a family legacy at Creighton, where her sister Madison now attends law school.
With a big home stand this weekend against Big East foes Marquette (Friday) and DePaul (Sunday), CU can polish its resume for the NCAA selection committee. Should McNary and her mates make it back to the post-season, as they fully expect to, they plan advancing deeper in the tournament than before.
“We have all the pieces to do it. We just need to get over that hump.”
McNary and Co. play at 7 p.m. Friday and at 1 p.m. Sunday at D.J. Sokol Arena. For tickets, visit http://www.gocreighton.com.
Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers; Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title
Omaha high school and greater Nebraska prep football programs have a tradition of producing running backs who go on to play in college, including a pipeline from Central High to the University of Nebraska, though in the last decade or so that tradition has been interrupted and that pipleline has dried up. That may be changing. The premier high school back in the state right now, at least in terms of the eye-popping numbers he puts up, is Omaha North senior Calvin Strong, the subject of this profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com). He became the state’s first back to reach 3,000 yards in a season when he rushed for 3,008 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in leading his Vikings to the state Class A championship in 2013. He is not alone. Just the other night Central’s Tre Sanders exploded for 279 yards, including a handful of breakaway runs, in the Eagles opening game win over Lincoln North Star. Sanders and Strong have size working against them. The former is listed at 5’8, 160 pounds and the latter at 5’9, 175 pounds, neither measurement lines that would preclude them being recruited by FBS schools, but it just might put some off. Sanders has a measurable advantage over Strong in that his 40 yard dash time is listed at 4.4 seconds while Strong, a notoriously poor tester in the 40, can only muster a 4.6 or 4.7. While there’s some interest in Sanders to be sure and much more might be coming his way if he keeps producing the way he did in the opener, Strong has even more interest, but he surprised a lot of folks when he recently gave a verbal commit to South Dakota. The Coyotes were on him a long time, yes, and they had extended the only outright offer to Strong, that’s true, but according to North Coach Larry Martin there was a lot of interest in the player from FBS and FCS schools, only they were waiting to see how Strong performed again on the field this season and more importantly how he performed in the classroom and on the ACT, because his academics have been a problem. Strong could always change his mind, of course, and end up going to a football factory, but it might just be his comfort level was the deciding factor and he wanted to take a relatively sure thing rather than sweat out his grades and test scores and see what other offers came his way. Whatever happens, it doesn’t appear that Strong or Sanders or any of the other in-state prep backs are likely to be D-I sensations the way Gale Sayers, Joe Orduna, Keith Jones, Calvin Jones, Ahman Green, Kenton Keith were. But maybe, just maybe, Strong can be the next Danny Woodhead, who was snubbed by the big schools because of his small stature and less than electrifying speed and set small college records on his way to the NFL. Of course, as my article goes into, Strong has even more serious things to worry about, like staying clear of the gang culture that surrounds him in his inner city neighborhood and that has claimed some of his friends.
Strong and his Vikings open their season tonight, Friday, August 29, at home against Millard West.
Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha North running back sensation and recent South Dakota verbal commit Calvin Strong put up sick numbers last season leading his school to its first state football title in the playoff era. His 3,008 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns set state and metro single season Class A records, shattering anything done by past star Omaha prep backs such as Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.
Despite measuring 5’9, 175 pounds, he runs like his name, strong, right into the heart of defenses, where his uncanny vision and agility allow him to avoid big hits. Even when he does run into contact he breaks tackles thanks to his superb balance, low center of gravity and ample strength. With his legs churning forward and his head on a swivel, he probes for creases, then spins, darts. bounces, bursts through heavy traffic into open lanes for big gains.
Known for a positive attitude, ready smile and being a vocal, emotional team leader, he saves his best moves for the off-field. There he does a precarious dance to avoid the gang-banging culture around him.
Strong and his pre-season No. 1 Vikings play Friday night’s season opener at home versus Millard West. All eyes will be on the senior when he touches the ball, which figures to be a lot given his 27-plus carries per game average last year. His 3,000 yard season came on the heels of a nearly 1,900 yard sophomore campaign, when he led North to the title game only to fall just short. He’s a two-time first-team all-state selection.
For someone with his credits it’s unusual he only had one college offer – from South Dakota. It may be more unusual yet he accepted it with a resume-enhancing session before him. North Head Coach Larry Martin confirms “there was a ton of interest out there” from FBS and FCS schools. Programs held off because Strong’s struggled academically and he’s posted sub-par 40-yard dash times (4.6-4.7) at camps.
The South Dakota commitment took Martin by surprise, though he confirms the school showed the most consistent interest in Strong. Martin, who’s “extremely close” to Strong and his family, said only two weeks ago, “I know he’s on a lot of people’s boards and people are waiting to see where all the intangibles measure out. Everybody wants to know where he’s at academically. Right now he’s a non-qualifier. If he was a qualifier, he’d have more offers right now. Somebody’s going to take him and is going to get a helluva running back.”
The pressure to perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests has sometimes gotten the better of Strong, whose commitment eases one stressor.
“He’s broke down on me multiple times about it,” Martin says.
Then there was the out-of-school suspension Strong served earlier this year for unspecified reasons. Martin says Strong put it behind him.
“He handled what he had to work through like a man. He came back and went right to work and he had his best summer since he’s been here. I thought our teachers did a great job of getting him his homework. He’s a very genuine young man. If he tells you he’s going to do something he’s going to follow through and do it. His word means something to him. I feel real confident with what I’ve seen. He’s learned from his mistakes, been apologetic for it, and moved on.”
Strong’s a celebrity wherever he goes in North Omaha and Martin believes even though the player is humble, a sense of entitlement creeped in.
“Sometimes kids think they can get away with a little bit more because of their status and I think he got caught up in that. I think he’s understanding that consequences apply to everybody.”
Martin has been pleased with Strong’s progress in and out of school and feels he’s prepared himself for what comes next.
“He has the grades – we’ve just got to get the ACT score up and we’ve taken the measures to get that headed in the right direction. God bless he stays healthy he’s going to be one of the more decorated football players coming out of this state in quite a few years.”
There’s never been any doubt, barring injury, Strong would play somewhere on a big stage at the next level. He may have a chance of being an impact player there, too. Of course, it’s always possible Strong could de-commit from the Coyotes and go to a football factory. It that happens, it would make him the first local back in a while to breakthrough after decades of guys doing it.
His coach won’t venture to guess, but Strong may even follow the path of two recent North players, in Niles Paul and Philip Bates, who went D-I and landed in the NFL. The path to the NFL doesn’t need to go through a big program either. Just ask Bates (Ohio) and Danny Woodhead (Chadron State).
The fact that Strong is even in this position is an achievement worth celebrating if for no other reason than he’s escaped the fate of friends lost to guns and gangs.
That harsh street life co-exists with his sometimes storybook, folk hero saga.
His school is in a neighborhood – Strong lives just down the hill from North – beset by poverty and crime. Drug dealing and turf wars pose dangers. Minus boundaries, gang culture exerts a pull. Strong, like his name, has stood firm against the allure and trap of that lifestyle, one that cost at least six of his buddies’ their lives. He continues knowing people caught up in it. He’s flirted with it himself. But he’s made known he wants nothing to do with it. The Gs know he’s off-limits.
“I still have friends that are in the gang life or whatever but they know and I know where I need to be at. It’s really not hard to x that stuff out of my life because I know and they know what I got going for myself and what’s in store for me,” Strong says.
“My freshman year I was pulled to doing dumb things but I’ve matured throughout these years to know what’s right from wrong, so I’ve been keeping myself away. Basically this whole summer I’ve just been with my coaches and teammates. I really ain’t been focused on anything else but football and studies so I can get to college.”
Martin’s aware of the pressures Strong faces. The coach and his family offer a respite when Calvin needs it.
“There is a pull and you can’t ignore it but he’s got his outs and when things get a little bit tough he calls coach and he comes stays with us, sometimes for a couple nights. We’re more than happy to provide that for him because he is a high quality young man.
“It’s also just to help take the burden off the family.”
In Martin, Strong appreciates he has a mentor and advocate, saying, “The only pressure that’s on me right now is finishing what he’s helped me with. Me and him have always had a relationship outside football. I’ll go to his house, chill out, eat steak. I’m like one of his own kids. He’s like a second dad to me. He’s always been there for me through anything. He has my back and I have his.
“He’s a real special guy and I give my heart to him. He’s prepared us for life, not just football. His speeches, they really just get to you, they spark something in you.”
Martin sees Strong mostly doing the right things these days.
“He’s really worked hard in terms of making sure he’s doing everything he can to make the right decisions. We’re just here to help continue to support him, provide him more options. Our total pursuit is to get that college education.”
Strong lives at home with his father, Calvin Strong Sr., and his younger brother, Jordan Strong. As a 6’2, 250 pound sophomore nose guard, Strong’s 15-year-old “little brother” is already getting hard looks from colleges. Because of his size, Jordan’s always played a couple grade levels up from his age group and thus he and his superstar older brother have been teammates growing up. The siblings are cogs in what may be a dynasty for years to come given the talent-rich depth and winning habits Martin’s built-up.
Calvin himself is only 17, so he may be fill out some come college, though in today’s sprint offenses size isn’t the factor it used to be.
Martin has always said, “it’s going to be about finding the right fit for him. I think people want to see him one more year. He did what he needed to do this summer and then we’ll let the first three or four games take care of themselves. We’ve got tough games right away – we open up with Millard West and Burke. If he does well in those games people are going to want to see that film.”
Among other things coaches will see, Martin says, is a dynamic back who’s “motivated and very competitive,” adding, “The one concern the bigger schools have is his top-end speed. Calvin just doesn’t test well in the 40. But I don’t know that top-end speed has to be the number one factor. He has so many other things he can do. Number one, he doesn’t turn the ball over. I mean, he just doesn’t fumble. He has taken extremely good care of the football. I think he has great vision. I think he anticipates where things are going to come open so well. He’s very durable. He’s elusive – he can make guys miss. He’s got great hips. His core and overall body strength is very good. His feet never stop moving, they’re constantly going.”
Strong has the ability to read defenses and anticipate where trouble lurks and then when things break down to change direction on a dime.
He says, “I see how everybody’s lined up. It’s really hard to tackle me unless the play gets all bunched up. I just keep my eyes focused and I shut everything else out, and once I break everything comes back loud again, all the screaming, and I can relax and have fun after I’ve gotten a first down or I’ve scored.
“Plus, I’m real small and my linemen are really big, so it’s good I can hide behind ‘em and just choose where I can break off. It makes it real difficult for the linebackers to read me.”
He acknowledges he’s also run behind an exceptional line anchored by Nebraska commit and fellow all-stater Michael Decker, who returns.
But not every defender’s blocked every play and Strong doesn’t back down from the one-on-one challenge of a backer trying to blow him up.
“I’m just a real strong small guy – I don’t take nothing from nobody. Playing against some of the biggest linebackers in the state I’ve always gone heads up with ‘em, I never try to fall down when they’re coming – I take it to ‘em. I’m a small back but I’m going to show you I have power. I’m not afraid of contact.”
The contact part is funny because Strong confirms he once hated even the idea of being tackled before playing organized football. His dad and uncle forced him to play to toughen him up. His first full year at running back for the Little Vikes, after a year wasted on the line, he’d curl up to avoid hits but after dominating the youth ranks he decided the contact was no big deal, though he rarely took a clean hit. When tackled today he takes it as a personal defeat, which only makes him come back harder the next time. At the end of the day his heart and will are what separate him from others.
“I feel like that’s what it is because I want it more than a lot of people. I’m always competitive. Everything is competition to me.”
As for his less than stellar 40 clocking, he discounts it with, “My speed and everything shows on the field.” Indeed, he’s rarely if ever caught from behind. Martin, who coached current NFL players Phil Bates and Niles Paul, is waiting to see what Strong shows this year before comparing him to those elite athletes.
“I’ll know a lot more with him after our first couple games. You know, we tell our kids that the guys from North who’ve made it to the next level are the hardest working players every day. I will say Calvin’s work ethic has definitely increased. I think we’ve got him to the point where he understands if he wants to be the elite of the elite then he needs to continue to work harder.”
Besides what’s on the line for him personally, Strong’s dedicated himself to getting North back to the title game again.
“I worked very hard. I’m determined this year to come out with a real big bang. I really want that ring again. I really want that experience again.”
He’s aware no Omaha Public Schools team has made it to three straight finals games and he wants North to be the first to do it.
The North program’s come to the point where winning’s the expectation. Playing for the title two years ago and then winning the championship last year has meant a huge boost in confidence.
“It really set the bar for us,” Strong says. “Now nobody can really bring us down. Nobody can say they’re better than us. Nobody can say anything about us being an underdog team because we showed we’ve climbed all those obstacles. It was very heartwarming to me because we’d been talking about it since my freshman year and just to have it after we should have had it my sophomore year was really nice.”
Strong’s also keenly aware of his role model and celebrity status. He still finds all the attention, as in everyone from children to adults wanting his autograph or screaming his name, a bit surreal, saying, “It’s crazy.” He adds, “There’s not a lot of 17-year olds that can give little kids hope.”
The importance he attaches to his gift for football as his gateway out of The Hood is clearly reflected in a Tweet he made:
“If I didn’t have this I’d be nothing. That’s why thrive (sic) to be the best to do it.”
The way he sees it, realizing his dreams also honors the memory of his late friends who encouraged him to pursue football as far it would take him. Strong was en route to a game two years ago when he got word his friend Tyler had shot himself in the head playing Russian Roulette. He found out during the game Tyler died from his wounds.
In a Tweet, Strong wrote:
“Rip to my brother Tyler Brent Hickerson
When I die I want my BROTHERS walking my casket down …the ones who stood next to me when I once stood#cant get know Realer
If only u was here to see me shine … I miss u”
Strong’s grown up a Husker fan and Nebraska definitely has him on their radar. The only camp he attended this past summer was in Lincoln, where he’s got to know NU’s premier back, Ameer Abdullah, to whom he’s often compared. Before saying yes to South Dakota Strong hinted he’d like to reestablish the once continuous running back pipeline there from Omaha that’s gone dry the last decade-and-a-half.
He said, “I’d love to keep it in state just to show everybody how good North Omaha competition is. Playing for Nebraska would make a lot of people happy in Omaha.”
If Strong were to renege and select another school’s offer, assuming one’s proffered, there’s still those test scores. Martin felt the junior college route was a distinct possibility for Strong. His own son, Zach Martin, who quarterbacked North to the 2012 title game, is thriving at Iowa Western Community College, which sends many players to D-I.
Once Strong’s South Dakota decision sunk in, Martin understood it because the player’s developed a trust with the Coyote coaches that reminds him of what Strong has with him and his coaches at North.
“Calvin and his family mean so much to me, he’s almost like my own son. My message to Calvin has always been I will find a place that’s going to be the right fit for you. I’m just not going to turn you over to somebody that hasn’t invested that much time in you. We’re going to take care of you.”
He says for nearly every dream Strong wants to accomplish, South Dakota will be able to provide that for him. If not, Martin’s sure there are plenty of other places that will fit the bill.
Stay strong, Calvin, stay strong.
North hosts No. 3 Millard West this Friday at Kinnick Stadium on the Northwest High campus. Kickoff is for 7 p.m.