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South by Southwest: Omaha South High Soccer Builds Makings of Dynasty on Diversity


South by Southwest: Omaha South High Soccer Builds Makings of Dynasty on Diversity

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

The feel-good story of Omaha South High School’s boys soccer team nearly got lost in the aftermath of last week’s state championship game. The Packers lost 4-2 to Lincoln East at Creighton’s Morrison Stadium. Marring the action was a small group of Lincoln East fans waving American flags during the contest. In the post-game rush celebrating the win some East fans littered the field with fake U.S. resident “green cards.”

Few among the record 5,800 in attendance actually saw the incident, which happened amid a tangle of bodies. When reporters on the scene informed South Coach Joe Maass what occurred he confronted East coach Jeff Hoham.

In the ensuing flood of media coverage the offending East students were suspended. Students and officials from the schools have expressed outrage and regret. Messages have been exchanged. A face-to-face dialogue convened. All to work through the hurt feelings. Practically everyone agrees the insults were racist taunts targeting predominantly Latino South. The provocative symbols inferred illegal status in what is already a tense climate over immigration. East has a largely white student body.

What should have been a capstone moment for South, whose graduation ceremony was held blocks away before the game, instead became fodder in the growing culture war. South officials say the stunt was just the latest insensitivity the school’s endured.

“There’s been incidents throughout the season and throughout my 11 years here,” said Maass. “It’s always been there.” Principal Cara Riggs said “inappropriate comments” have been directed towards “not just our boys soccer team, but also our nearly all African-American boys basketball team. They too have suffered from similar situations.”

She noted frustration with schools “minimizing” such events but credits East staff and students for trying to make things right.

As inevitable as it may be for what transpired to be headline material in the raging immigration debate, the greater lesson is how a team from a diverse inner city school achieved great heights and didn’t take the bait when egged on.

Maass has guided the program from awful to elite. Fueling the turnaround is talent from feeder South Omaha and Bellevue soccer clubs, notably Club Viva. The mostly Latino players bring a fluid style of finesse, quickness, creativity he terms “beautiful to watch. The average kid comes here with natural foot skills and an understanding of the game. A lot of the fundamentals are there.” Plus, he said, “they want to play passionately.”

South’s lone non-Latino player, junior Alex Stillinger, came from Viva, too. He was South’s leading scorer in 2010 and he calls playing for South “an honor.” He and his teammates describe themselves as “family.” Junior Guillermo Ventura, whose brother Eric made the squad as a freshman, said, “all my teammates are my brothers.”

MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people playing sports and outdoor

 

The coaching staff is a mix of ethnicities, including Greece native Demitrios Fountas.

Diversity is not isolated to the soccer team, said Riggs: “Our students who live in a very diverse school population…are respectful of each other’s cultures and differences.”

The Packer faithful at the state title game included Latinos and non-Latinos. “It gives us some real pride to have the power back in one of the sports,” said South High grad Tom Maass, an uncle of coach Joe Maass. Sergio Rangel, who knows several South players, said the team’s success “is a good thing for the community.”

Coach Maass believes South’s new Collin Field came to fruition when alums and backers of largely Eastern European ancestry put their faith in the Latino-led soccer program as the school’s best chance at reclaiming its long dormant athletic glory. The regulation soccer field offers a decided home advantage. South’s unbeaten there.

His first five years brought only a handful of wins. But steady progress has resulted in three state tourney appearances in four years. In 2010 the program set a school record for single-season wins, 20, and achieved several South High soccer firsts: a No. 1 ranking; a district championship; a win at state; and a championship game berth. As departing senior star Manny Lira put it after South finally beat its longtime nemesis, Creighton Prep, in the state semifinals, “It’s history within history within history.”

“Yeah, this is huge, I can’t even put it into words right now,” Maass said after South beat Lincoln Southeast for the District A-3 title. “We’ve been building to this with every little stepping stone. Every year we’ve improved a little bit. Where we’re at and where we were are two different stories. It’s been a complete reversal. People used to pat me on the back and say, ‘Oh you’re making the kids so much better.’ Now when I beat their teams I don’t get that anymore. Now it’s kind of like they can’t stand me.”

The truth is, anytime South plays a Millard, Papillion, Westside or Prep, there’s a clash of inner city-suburban, poor-wealthy, Latino-gringo. Maass said despite some bigots most opponents “respect us in the end. People actually believe we’re good now. We’ve closed the gap for sure. It’s not a fluke, it’s the real deal.”

More important, he said, is how South soccer “is building a lot of pride within our community and our kids.”

“The community has something positive to look at now at South rather than the low test scores or low graduation rates,” said Guillermo Ventura. “The community is appreciative of the school and the kids and what we have to offer.”

Before the state championship game against unbeaten and nationally ranked Lincoln East Maass said, “I’ve been telling everybody regardless of the outcome of this game the community interest and support and enthusiasm I’ve seen from all walks of life far outweighs whether we win or lose, and it’s always kind of been about that here until the tradition’s built. Then I suppose it’ll be about winning championships.”

Even after the loss, he sounded upbeat, saying, “This is the best game I’ve ever been to in terms of crowd support, South Omaha support. I’ve never been so proud to be from South Omaha in my life. Seriously. This is the pinnacle.”

Maass feels with the pipeline that’s in place it’s just the start of something big.

“I hear stories now of middle school kids wanting to come to South and play soccer, and so I’m hoping we can build on this and create kind of like an every year trip to state and possibly win a state championship.”

Graduated goalkeeper Billy Loera, who set a state record with 37 career shutouts predicts “there’s a lot more to come.”

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