South High soccer keeps pushing the envelope
When this story I wrote about the Omaha South High boys soccer team was originally published the second week of April in El Perico, the then-unbesten and top ranked Packers were freshly returned from winning their division at a national tourament in Tennessee. They were heading into the Metro Conference tourney with great confidence. But the Packers got upset there by Millard South and then dropped a second match to Omaha Creighton Prep a week and a half later. Having seemingly lost their momentum, they quickly regained it by winning their own Van Metre Invitational against a tough field and then dominating the A3 District playoffs, taking the title in a rematch with Millard South that the Packers won 3-0 to send the school to its seventh straight state tournament. I’m working on a new story about the team to preview its prospects for the tourney. Nothing’s ever a gimme in sports, but these Packers have overcome lots of injuries, including the loss of their goalkeeper late in the year, and then righted the ship after that mid-season swoon. Their depth and resiliency may be what leads them to the finals and a shot at the program’s second state championship. I would not bet against them.
As this story alludes to and as my profile on Coach Joe Maass from last year mentions more explicitly, South soccer has earned national attention in recent years as one of the country’s best high school squads. It’s also been singled out on the national stage for being part of a turnaround in South Omaha that is Hispanic-led. My new story and any subsequent stories I do on the program will continue this thread because it is at the heart of the bigger story that South soccer’s success represents. Somehow I missed until just now that the program got featured in Sports Illustrated in 2015. The feature is part of a larger series on the changing face of sports in America, as demographic shifts compel changes on and off the field at every level of sport. Titled “American Dreamers,” the article highlights the Packers’ journey from an after thought to a perennial power. It also looks at the ongoing transformation of South Omaha and South High and how this immigrant community takes great pride in their soccer team and the impact it’s had across the state. After South cemented its elite status by beating arch rival Omaha Creighton Prep for the 2013 championship players wrote to then-Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman asking him to work to help improve the lives of those in their community. The story also highlights “new life” at Omaha South, including an energized community and recent academic achievements.
©JEFF BEIERMANN/THE WORLD-HERALD
South High soccer keeps pushing the envelope
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Since capping a rebuilding effort with the Class A state title three years ago, the Omaha South boys soccer team now looks to new challenges.
South didn’t repeat after winning it all in 2013 but seeks getting back to the finals this year. A new goal became seeing how it stacks up versus top teams from the Southeast in the April 1-3 Smoky Mountain Cup in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. South, the No. 1 team in Nebraska and the No. 7 team in one national rankings, went 3-0 to win its eight-team bracket. The Packers played their best soccer to cement their own elite status.
“We went into uncharted territory to see how we measure up with other states,” Coach Joe Maass says. “We played against some of the best and did well and won, so maybe that shows Nebraska soccer is a little bit better than people would give it credit for on a national level. We didn’t just represent South, we represented the state of Nebraska. Our club teams go to national tournaments but we’d yet to see a hIgh school team do it. The fact we broke through is huge.”
Before the trip Maass expressed concern over how him team would fare with opening round foe Farragut (Tenn.) and its two Division I recruits and senior-laden roster. But South overcame a 2-0 deficit to force a shootout and won the kicks 5-3 to advance. In another comeback South beat McGill-Toolen (Alabama) 3-2 in the semifinals. In the finals South beat Station Camp, (Tenn.) 3-0 for the division title.
It was an impressive showing for a team Maass had openly questioned despite heading to the event unbeaten. He complained South was “winning” ugly and “not finishing” at the net though he did like its ball possession, defense and depth. Sweeping three unfamiliar opponents brought the team closer to the potential Maass sees for it.
“I think we came together, especially offensively.”
In what he called South’s “biggest team effort” to date, he felt his players finally began “to figure out their roles.”
Due to some key injuries South needed more players to step up besides leading goal scorer Alvaro Elizarraga and points leader Jimmi Becerril, and more players did.
“Juvenal Jacinto had a hairline fracture in his foot and was slowly trickling back in, but when we played McGill-Toolen he scored a really nice goal. He was really productive throughout the whole weekend. We brought up a JV player who had never even played in a game and he scored a goal against Farragut. He showed his ability to be productive up top as well.
“Our second or third leading scorer Ernesto Perez didn’t travel due to a hamstring, so it was really nice to see we have other options out there. I’m more confident in a few more players. Our depth showed. When somebody gets hurt, like Ernesto, it’s a huge loss but I think other teams would be hurting more.”
In addition to new contributors. Gatorade Player of the Year finalist Elizarraga scored three goals and steady hand Becerril had a big weekend scoring and assisting.
Maass says, “I think this year’s team is maturing. Our freshmen and sophomores are pressing for varsity time, so every day is a competition at practice. When we started the season I don’t think the younger kids believed they could actually get to the varsity level. Well, we’ve had some kids do that, so now they’re starting to believe. Every day in practice has been more of a battle than I can remember. would say depth-wise we’re sitting pretty close to as good as we’ve been. That’s eventually going to get us closer to the state championship.”
The 2013 Omaha South soccer team waves to fans before taking on Omaha Creighton Prep in the Nebraska Class A boys soccer championship match at Morrison Stadium. The Packers won 1-0.
He says besides the confidence boost that came with winning, the trip afforded “team-building” benefits.
“The overall experience of everybody going down and spending a few days together, riding around in a bus and sleeping in a cabin, it kind of covered everything you need to build a strong program behind the scenes,” he says. “It was almost like going on a retreat. It pulled us together like a family.”
“And the fact that we won reinforced everything. It might actually propel us into the end of the season.”
He adds that the chance “to experience life in a different area” was special. “None of our kids had been to the Smoky Mountains. It’s not like we’re a school with a bunch of rich kids that can just pile up and go somewhere. It was really a great opportunity for a school like ours.”
Maass felt better about his team coming out of the Smoky Cup and going into the Omaha Metro Tournament ahead of a key home contest with rival Creighton Prep on April 19. Then South hosts its four-team Van Metre tourney April 22-23 before closing the regular season on the road. Then its districts and a presumed date with state.
“Everybody assumes were No. 1. It makes the target always on us. When I started 17 years ago we were a bad team, so opportunities then were just to get our kids playing club. Now it’s progressed so far that we’ve won a state title and a national title. To me, winning the Smoky Cup was just another thing pushing the envelope.”
With South High boys basketball finally winning state, the school now has two championship-level teams that came from nothing. Only he and South hoops Coach Bruce Chubick know what it took to get there.
“Go back 10 years and you would see both programs were not built overnight,” Maass says. “Until you have done it, you really can’t understand the day-to-day challenges and stress. It takes a different type of personality to stay the course when things are going bad and there are setbacks. You do it because it’s about the kids being successful in life. In some cases, our programs create avenues-opportunities that can save the hardest of individuals.”