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Omaha Storm Chasers part of Minor League Baseball push to cultivate Latino market

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Been late posting some El Perico stories I had publsihed in July and August 2018. This is one of them.

 

Omaha Storm Chasers part of Minor League Baseball push to cultivate Latino market

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

 

Baseball has long been an international sport. Its deep roots throughout Asia, Latin America, South America,Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico are well reflected in minor and major league team rosters in the United States.

To see this Latin influence, look no further than the Triple A Omaha Storm Chasers. The current roster includes players with the surnames Torres, Lopez, Arteage, Villegas, San Miguel, and Hernandez. Others, including top prospect Adalberto Mondesi, have been with the club in 2018. Two key players with the parent Kansas City Royals, Salvador Perez and Paulo Orlando, served rehab assignments here earlier this summer.

The emergence of Latino players – they comprise 27 percent of MLBers today compared to 14 percent in 1988 – has happened as America’s Latino population has exploded. Professional baseball knows that to stay relevant to diverse audiences, it must market the game to growing minority segments represented on the field. Thus, in 2017 Minor League Baseball initiated the Copa de la Diversión series or Fun Cup in celebration of Hispanic culture. Four franchises test-marketed the series. This year, 33 franchises are participating, including the Storm Chasers.

Teams designate select home dates as Copa games featuring Hispanic-themed uniforms and names, special community guests, and traditional cultural food, music, and dancing. For Copa, the Storm Chasers become Cazadores de Tormentas at Werner Park. The team played as the Cazadores on June 7, June 21 and July 21 and will close out the Copa series as the Cazadores on Thursday, August 2 at 7:05 p.m., playing against Las Vegas.

Showing off Latin roots and playing before Spanish-speakers is “fun”, according to Chasers utility player Jack Lopez. The Puerto Rico native added, “It’s an honor to be able to participate. Representing our countries is something we take pride in.”

Rosendo Robles will sing the national anthem prior to the start of the August 2 game. A post-game celebration concert will feature performers Marcos & Sabor, Alexis Arai and Premo el Negociante.

Chasers General Manager Martie Cordaro said his organization is focused on cultivating the Hispanic market here moving forward.

“This is a long play for us that’s based in community as we create and make relationships. The long play is this is a growing population nationally and specifically here in the metro area. We want them to look at us just like they do the Henry Doorly Zoo or Funplex or Pizza Machine or Cinco de Mayo. We want to be right there with their entertainment decisions.

“Sales is really secondary to what we’re doing right now. It’s not just another immediate promotion to sale tickets. We hired a staff member specifically for the community outreach it entails.”

Venezuela native Jhonnathan Omaña, a former Montreal Expos prospect and longtime Omaha resident, was hired in January as the club’s first multicultural marketing lead.

After years of experience in marketing, customer service, and promotions, Omaña enjoys being back in baseball using his bilingual and community relations skills.

“I have the opportunity to see baseball behind the scenes, in the front office, to make connections with the community and to facilitate interactions between the players and coaches and the fans. We’re reaching out to community businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools, and we’re at different events. I get the chance to see baseball from a whole different perspective. That’s what really attracted me the most about this position.”

Baseball runs deep in his heritage.

“I’m from a country where baseball is big. Baseball has been in our family a long time and is a big part of our family.”

His grandfather Lucindo Caraballo was a legendary player with Los Leones del Caracas and is a candidate for Venezuela’s national baseball hall of fame. Omaña was talented enough to get a look by the Expos. A younger brother played community college ball in Nebraska.

Omaña sees his job as building on the goodwill the franchise has established in its 50 years in Omaha.

“The relationship with the Hispanic community was already there,” he said. “I’m just contributing to making that relationship stronger.”

GM Cordaro acknowledged more needed to be done before Copa.

“I don’t think traditionally minor league baseball has done all it could to target all demographics,” he said. “Minor league baseball is a great sport. It draws 42 million fans a year – outdrawing the NFL and NBA combined – but there are additional groups and demographics we’re not directly speaking or had not been to prior to the Copa program.”

“I think this is an opportunity to say, yes, we are the community’s ballclub, not just the traditional baseball fans’ ballclub. I think what the Copa program does is to be a little more inviting, a little more welcoming. That’s really what Jjonathan [Omaña] has been tasked with,” GM Cordaro said.

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

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

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.”

Life Itself XI: Sports Stories from the 2000s


Life Itself XI:

Sports Stories from the 2000s

 

 

Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/08/giving-a-helping…-nebraska-greats/

The State of Volleyball: How Nebraska Became the Epicenter of American Volleyball

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/21/the-state-of-vol…rican-volleyball/

Huskers’ Winning Tradition: Surprise Return to the Top for Nebraska Volleyball

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/21/huskers-winning-…raska-volleyball/

An Omaha Hockey Legend in the Making: Jake Guentzel Reflects on Historic Rookie Season

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/07/10/an-omaha-hockey-…ic-rookie-season

Boxing coach Jose Campos molds young men

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/01/boxing-coach-jos…-molds-young-men

From couch potato to champion pugilist

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/22/from-couch-potat…hampion-pugilist

 

Living legend Tom Osborne still winning game of life at 79

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/10/27/living-legend-to…me-of-life-at-79/

 

The end of a never-meant-to-be Nebraska football dynasty has a school and a state fruitlessly pursuing a never-again-to-be-harnessed rainbow

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/26/the-end-of-a-nev…arnessed-rainbow/

Baseball and Soul Food at Omaha Rockets Kanteen

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/06/23/baseball-and-soul-food/

Soul food eatery Omaha Rockets Kanteen conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/17/soul-food-eatery…liquor-love-menu

A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/17/a-case-of-cognit…letic-dissonance/

Thoughts on recent gathering of Omaha Black Sports Legends

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/09/29/thoughts-on-rece…k-sports-legends/

 

Marlin Briscoe
  • MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD

From left, Bob Gibson, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers and Ron Boone pose for a picture during a special dinner “An Evening With the Magician” honoring Marlin Briscoe at Baxter Arena on Thursday.

 

Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/27/marlin-briscoe-t…lly-gets-his-due/

UPDATE TO: Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/09/20/marlin-briscoe-f…-getting-his-due/

Marlin Briscoe: Still making history

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/10/marlin-briscoe-n…-of-fame-be-next/

Marlin Briscoe – An Appreciation

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/13/marlin-briscoe-an-appreciation

 

Pad man Esau Dieguez gets world champ Terence Crawford ready

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/25/pad-man-esau-die…e-crawford-ready

Some thoughts on the HBO documentary “My Fight” about Terence Crawford

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/12/some-thoughts-on…terence-crawford

Omaha warrior Terence Crawford wins again but his greatest fight may be internal

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/21/omaha-warrior-te…-may-be-internal

Terence “Bud” Crawford is Nebraska’s most impactful athlete of all-time

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/09/terence-bud-craw…lete-of-all-time/

Terence_CrAWFORD_MEDIA_DAY_POSE (720x508)

©Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank

TERENCE CRAWFORD STAMPS HIS PLACE AMONG OMAHA GREATS

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/02/24/terence-crawford…ong-omaha-greats

This is what greatness looks like. Terence Crawford: Forever the People’s Champ

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/24/terence-crawford…he-peoples-champ

New approach, same expectation for South soccer

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/14/new-approach-sam…for-south-soccer/

South High soccer keeps pushing the envelope

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/06/south-high-socce…ing-the-envelope

Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/24/masterful-joe-ma…soccer-evolution

The Chubick Way comes full circle with father-son coaching tandem at Omaha South

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/03/the-chubick-way-…m-at-omaha-south

A good man’s job is never done: Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/a-good-mans-job-…ing-south-to-top

Bruce Chubick builds winner at South: State title adds capstone to strong foundation

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/18/bruce-chubick-bu…trong-foundation

 

Omaha South Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. recovers from heart attack. https://t.co/u7xdhliQwG @nebpreps

 

 

Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/09/18/storybook-hoops-…-star-aguek-arop/

What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/02/08/what-if-creighto…en-but-the-women

Diversity finally comes to the NU volleyball program

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/14/diversity-finall…lleyball-program

Ann Schatz on her own terms – Veteran sportscaster broke the mold in Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/30/ann-schatz-on-he…he-mold-in-omaha/

 

Picture

 

 

The Silo Crusher: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trev Alberts

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/27/the-silo-crusher…ove-trev-alberts

Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’  Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/15/former-husker-al…s-team-a-reality

Omaha North superstar back Calvin Strong overcomes bigger obstacles than tacklers; Record-setting rusher poised to lead defending champion Vikings to another state title

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/08/29/omaha-north-supe…ther-state-title/

Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/01/having-survived-…ight-state-title

Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/29/dean-blais-has-u…key-dreaming-big

 


 

 

Gender equity in sports has come a long way, baby; Title IX activists-advocates who fought for change see much progress and the need for more

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/gender-equity-in…he-need-for-more

Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/21/omaha-fight-doct…nds-about-boxing

An Ode to Ali: Forever the Greatest

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/04/an-od-to-ali-forever-the-greatest

A Kansas City Royals reflection

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/01/a-kansas-city-royals-reflection

Bob Boozer, basketball immortal, posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/20/bob-boozer-baske…all-hall-of-fame/

Firmly Rooted: The Story of Husker Brothers

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/09/firmly-rooted-th…usker-brothers-2

Sparring for Omaha: Boxer Terence Crawford Defends His Title in the City He Calls Home

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/01/08/sparring-for-oma…ty-he-calls-home

The Champ looks to impact more youth at his B&B Boxing Academy

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/14/the-champ-looks-…ations-expansion/

 

FrontCover

 

 

 

The Champ Goes to Africa: Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/06/26/the-champ-goes-t…rter-and-friends

My travels in Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with Pipeline Worldwide’s Jamie Fox Nollette, Terence Crawford and Co.

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/01/my-travels-in-ug…-crawford-and-co

Omaha conquering hero Terence Crawford adds second boxing title to his legend; Going to Africa with The Champ; B&B Boxing Academy builds champions inside and outside the ring

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/21/omaha-conquering…outside-the-ring/

UNO hockey staking its claim

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/06/uno-hockey-staking-its-claim

Austin Ortega leads UNO hockey to new heights

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/05/austin-ortega-le…y-to-new-heights

Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/05/homegrown-joe-ar…lege-and-the-nfl/

High-flying McNary big part of Creighton volleyball success; Senior outside hitter’s play has helped raise program stature

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/10/24/high-flying-mcna…-program-stature

 


 

 

Doug McDermott’s magic carpet ride to college basketball Immortality: The stuff of jegends and legacies

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/05/06/doug-mcdermotts-…nds-and-legacies/

UNO resident folk hero Dana Elsasser’s softball run coming to an end: Hard-throwing pitcher to leave legacy of overcoming obstacles

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/04/28/uno-resident-fol…coming-obstacles

HOMETOWN HERO TERENCE CRAWFORD ON VERGE OF GREATNESS AND BECOMING BOXING’S NEXT SUPERSTAR

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/23/hometown-hero-te…s-next-superstar

Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/25/terence-bud-craw…-to-make-history

In his corner: Midge Minor is trainer, friend, father figure to pro boxing contender Terence “Bud” Crawford

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/07/30/in-his-corner-mi…nce-bud-crawford

Giving kids a fighting chance: Carl Washington and his CW Boxing Club and Youth Resource Center

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/12/03/giving-kids-a-fi…-resource-center/

JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/14/john-c-johnson-standing-tall

Deadeye Marcus “Mac” McGee still a straight shooter at 100

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/15/deadeye-marcus-m…t-shooter-at-100

Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/rich-boys-town-s…-legacy-recalled/

 

Rosenblatt Stadium
Rosenblatt Stadium - 2004 College World Series
The exterior of Rosenblatt Stadium
Approaching Rosenblatt Stadium on 13th Street

 

The series and the stadium: CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/25/the-series-and-t…e-boys-of-summer

Hoops legend Abdul-Jabbar talks history

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/09/hoops-legend-abd…ar-talks-history

The man behind the voice of Husker football at Memorial Stadium

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/20/the-man-behind-t…memorial-stadium

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibits on display for the College World Series; 

In bringing the shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum announces it’s back

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/05/17/negro-leagues-ba…nounces-its-back

Steve Rosenblatt: A legacy of community service, political ambition and baseball adoration

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/27/steve-rosenblatt…seball-adoration/

Houston Alexander, “The Assassin”

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/22/houston-alexander-the-assassin

 

 

The Pit Boxing Club is Old-School Throwback to Boxing Gyms of Yesteryear

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/04/the-pit-boxing-c…ms-of-yesteryear

The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke  

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/the-last-hurrah-…rd-darcy-stracke/

Going to Extremes: Professional Cyclist Todd Herriott

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/11/25/going-to-extreme…st-todd-herriott/

Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/05/danny-woodhead-t…-good-in-the-nfl/

Kenton Keith’s long and winding journey to football redemption

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/04/kenton-keiths-lo…tball-redemption/

One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/10/one-peach-of-a-p…-softball-legend

 

 

 

Green Bay Packers All-Pro Running Back Ahman Green Channels Comic Book Hero Batman and Gridiron Icons Walter Payton and Bo Jackson on the Field

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/05/green-bay-packer…son-on-the-field

Ron Stander: One-time Great White Hope still making rounds for friends in need

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/ron-stander-stil…-friends-in-need

Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Offer a Living History Lesson about the National Pastime from a Black Perspective

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/27/buck-o’neil-and-…lack-perspective

Memories of Baseball Legend Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Live On

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/memories-of-buck…-leagues-live-on

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/my-midwest-baseball-odyssey-diary

Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis  Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/20/lifetime-friends…-black-citizenry

A Good Deal: George Pfeifer and Tom Krehbiel are the Ties that Bind Boys Town Hoops

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-good-deal-geor…-boys-town-hoops/

Tom Lovgren, A Good Man to Have in Your Corner

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/03/tom-lovgren-a-go…e-in-your-corner/

Omaha’s Fight Doctor, Jack Lewis, and His Boxing Cronies Weigh-in On Omaha Hosting the National Golden Gloves

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/20/omahas-fight-doc…al-golden-gloves/

The Fighting Hernandez Brothers

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/06/the-fighting-hernandez-brothers/

Redemption, A Boys Town Grad Tyrice Ellebb Finds His Way

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/06/redemption

Wright On, Adam Wright Has it All Figured Out Both On and Off the Football Field

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/06/wright-on

A Rosenblatt Tribute

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/a-rosenblatt-tribute

The Little People’s Ambassador at the College World Series

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/the-little-peopl…ege-world-series/

The Two Jacks of the College World Series

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/the-two-jacks-of…ege-world-series

 

Image result for don benning omaha uno

 

 

UNO wrestling dynasty built on tide of social change

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/03/17/uno-wrestling-dy…-social-change-2

Requiem for a Dynasty: UNO Wrestling

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/28/requiem-for-a-dy…ville-university/

UNO Wrestling Retrospective – Way of the Warrior, House of Pain, Day of Reckoning

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/21/a-three-part-uno…day-of-reckoning/

Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/01/omaha-native-ste…of-omaha-central/

 


 

 

It’s a Hoops Culture at The SAL, Omaha’s Best Rec Basketball League

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/its-a-hoops-cult…asketball-league/

Born again ex-gangbanger and pugilist, now minister, Servando Perales makes Victory Boxing Club his mission church for saving youth from the streets

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/19/born-again-ex-ga…from-the-streets/

Fight Girl Autumn Anderson

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/fight-girl/

Brotherhood of the Ring, Omaha’s CW Boxing Club

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/brotherhood-of-the-ring/

Harley Cooper, The Best Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/05/harley-cooper-th…e-never-heard-of/

Requiem for a Heavyweight, the Ron Stander Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/requiem-for-a-heavyweight/

When We Were Kings, A Vintage Pro Wrestling Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/04/when-we-were-kin…-wrestling-story/

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/04/heart-and-soul/

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/04/the-downtown-box…se-of-discipline

 


 

 

Making the case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/27/making-the-case-…rts-hall-of-fame/

OUT TO WIN – THE ROOTS OF GREATNESS: OMAHA’S BLACK SPORTS LEGENDS

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/20/out-to-win-the-r…k-sports-legends/

Opening Installment from my series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

An exploration of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/10/from-my-series-o…k-sports-legends

Closing Installment from my series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

An appreciation of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/10/closing-installm…k-sports-legends/

Bob Gibson, A Stranger No More (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/16/bob-gibson-a-stranger-no-more

 

 

Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound remains his own man years removed from the diamond (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/18/bob-gibson-the-m…from-the-diamond/

My Brother’s Keeper, The competitive drive MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s older brother, Josh, instilled in him (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/30/my-brothers-keep…instilled-in-him/

Johnny Rodgers, Forever Young, Fast, and Running Free (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/18/johnny-rodgers-f…ots-of-greatness/

Ron Boone, still an Iron Man after all these years (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/18/ron-boone-still-…ots-of-greatness

The Brothers Sayers: Big legend Gale Sayers and little legend Roger Sayers (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/15/the-brothers-say…end-roger-sayers/

 

 

Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/14/bob-boozer-basketball-immortal

Prodigal Son: Marlin Briscoe takes long road home (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/13/prodigal-son-mar…e-long-road-home/

Don Benning: Man of Steel (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/17/don-benning-man-…ots-of-greatness

Dana College Legend Marion Hudson, the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of before (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/14/marion-hudson-th…ots-of-greatness/

Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: The Charles Bryant Story (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/09/soul-on-ice-man-…ots-of-greatness/

The Boxers – Sweet Scientists from The Hood (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/11/from-my-series-o…ts-from-the-hood/ 

The Wrestlers – Masters in the Way of the Mat (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win Series: The Roots of Greatness) 

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/11/from-my-series-o…e-way-of-the-mat

A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/25/from-my-series-o…city-hoops-scene/

Neal Mosser, A Straight-Shooting Son-of-a-Gun (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/16/from-my-series-o…ing-son-of-a-gun

Alexander the Great’s Wrestling Dynasty – Champion Wrestler and Coach Curlee Alexander on Winning (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/from-my-series-o…ander-on-winning

Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/10/from-the-series-…ark-in-athletics

 

Perez finds home away from home in York


Perez finds home away from home in York

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in March 2018 issue of El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

It seems like destiny now to Brianna Perez, the ex-York (Neb.) College softball standout and recent Nebraska Greats Foundation recipient. She dreamed of playing on a national stage. Instead, she eded up 1,500 miles from home at tiny, private York in southeast Neb., where she overcame injury to become a diamond legend. Then, when more hard times hit, she discovered an entire community, even some strangers, had her back.

Perez was a star high school competitor in her native Madera, California. She suffered an ACL tear as a junior when, covering second base, her cleats got stuck in the dirt and her left knee torqued. She came back strong her senior year. But missing time didn’t net the exposure she needed to land a major college athletic scholarship.

York entered the picture because her aunt Roni (Arellano) Miller played there – graduating in 2001. She’d been a Madera softball star herself. She, too, dreamed of Division I glory before finding her destiny at York. She took Perez on her campus visit and was happy when her niece enrolled on scholarship there. But the homesick Perez lasted only one semester.

“I was closed-minded and not open to the culture of York College. It was different from what I was used to,” Perez said.

She returned home to be near family and friends. She attended Reedley Junior College, where she played ball two years. But leaving York the way she did never felt right. She pined to get back. An unexpected opportunity to do that arose when Miller took the York head coaching job and called to recruit her niece. who had two years eligibility left, to come play for her.

“I was given the opportunity continue my education and softball career, so, I took a leap of faith and decided to go back,” Perez said. “That was the best decision I ever made in my life. I got more involved and made friends I will cherish the rest of my life.

I’m really happy with the way things worked out. I definitely think  everything happens for a reason. The relationships you build at a small school like York College are things you can’t really replace or get anywhere else. I think everything happened the way it was supposed to.”

Having her aunt as her coach helped.

“What I learned from her was not only how to be a better player but how to be a better person. I really appreciate that because I use it now in my everyday life.”

Miller’s husband, Kenny Miller, assists coaching the team and Brianna helps out, too.

“Roni and Kenny are two of the biggest influences in my life. I live with them and help coach with them. They’ve been huge mentors. They’ve helped me grow as a person. If I have questions about life and need advice, I know i can always go to them.”

Perez needed support when, as a York junior, she had the same ACL injury she endured in high school. This time, she made a shoestring catch and as she came up to throw the runner out at home, she stepped in a hole and the same ligament twisted and tore.

“Having already been through it once, I knew what to expect. I learned it was just a set-back to reaching my goals and that I had to work twice as hard. I also learned to be mentally tough because there were many days when the pain was too much and I didn’t think I could do it. But with the help of family, friends, teammates and coaches, I was able to push through.

“I think it has made me more mentally tough for difficult situations in life.”

Just as before, she came back strong. For her 2016 senior campaign she played outfield and batted .433 with an .803 slugging percentage. Her 68 hits included 22 doubles and 12 home runs. She drove in 55 runs. She became the Panthers’ first softball All-American.

Then she got tested again when she fell behind paying medical bills from the knee surgery she underwent. A collection agency threatened legal action.

“It was scary and embarrassing. I didn’t really know what to do.”

She depleted her few resources traveling home to be with her mother, who was fighting pancreatic cancer. “I worked three jobs just so I could afford to go home.”

Then her car broke down. “It was a pretty tough year.”

That’s when she learned about the nonprofit Nebraska Greats Foundation that helps ex-athletes in need.

“It’s been such a blessing in my life,” Perez said of the foundation, which paid off her debts.

Her mother has made a full recovery.

Perez views everything that’s happened as a gift.

“It was completely worth it. It’s made me into the person I am today.”

She left after graduating only to return for her master’s in Organizational and Global Leadership. She compiled a 4.0 GPA. She hopes for a human services career.

“I’m passionate about helping the less fortunate and homeless. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with that.”

She works in admissions at York, where one day her younger sisters, also softball phenoms, may follow her.

“I tell them all the time, ‘Don’t let anything hold you back.’ I showed them that it can be done. They’re capable of doing that and so much more. They might have offers to play softball at bigger schools but,” Perez said, it’s possible” they could continue the family legacy there. “They’ve come out to visit and they like it a lot. I’ll support them in whatever they want to do.”

Perez is enjoying coaching.

“It’s really cool to see players accomplish something they didn’t think they were capable of. When that happens, you see their confidence go up and carry over into everything else they do. That’s satisfying.”

Though she may not stay in York, she said, “It will always be a little home away from home for me. I’ve been given so many opportunities through York College.”

Lea más del trabajo de Leo Adam Biga en leoadambiga.com.

An Omaha Hockey Legend in the Making: Jake Guentzel Reflects on Historic Rookie Season


I am almost a year late in posting this Omaha Magazine profile I wrote about Omaha’s own Jake Guentzel and the amazing post-season tear he went on as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ha became a much bigger factor than anyone imagined in helping the team contend for the Stanley Cup. Guentzel and his Pittsburgh mates went on to win it of course, thus capping one of the most storybook rookie campaigns in NHL history and barely a season removed from starring for the UNO Maverick hockey program.

 

An Omaha Hockey Legend in the Making

Jake Guentzel Reflects on Historic Rookie Season

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Illustration by Derek Joy

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-omaha-hockey-legend-in-the-making/)

 

Former UNO hockey star Jake Guentzel left school in 2016, after junior year, to pursue his dream of playing professionally. No one expected what happened next.

The boyish newcomer with the impish smile went from nondescript rookie wing prospect to elite scorer during two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League. Upon joining the parent Pittsburgh Penguins in November, he made an immediate splash. In his NHL debut, he scored a goal with his first shift. He followed with a goal on his third shift. Two shots—two goals.

By January, Guentzel secured a permanent seat in the NHL team’s locker room. The club showed faith, placing him on its top-scoring line alongside captain Sidney Crosby. The Crosby-Guentzel pairing proved pivotal in Pittsburgh’s second straight Stanley Cup win. Their team defeated Nashville four games to two in the finals.

Guentzel would make NHL playoffs history before hoisting the Stanley Cup overhead: His 13 postseason goals made him the first rookie to lead the NHL playoffs (five of those goals were game-winners); his 21 points tied the league rookie record for a postseason; and he became the second-ever rookie to score a hat trick in the playoffs.

UNO has produced several NHL players but Omaha hockey historian Gary Anderson says, “I don’t remember any who have had the same impact.”

Indeed, the Maverick who signed with Pittsburgh as a third-round, 2013 draft pick (77th overall) became the talk of the hockey world. He paired with future Hall of Famer Crosby to form a lethal scoring tandem on the NHL’s best team. He was in the running for playoffs MVP (Conn Smythe award) won by his superstar teammate.

His former coach at UNO, the recently retired Dean Blais, marvels at Guentzel’s exploits.

“It’s hard to explain,” Blais says. “I don’t think anyone would have forecast that. He played well in the American League, but he was up and down, and when that happens you don’t expect great things.”

Not from someone who would have been playing his senior year at UNO.

“Then he goes into Pittsburgh, has a pretty good season, and in the playoffs he’s a couple goals or points away from maybe winning the Conn Smythe. For Jake to step in and do that is pretty special,” Blais says.

Sharing it all was former UNO and current Penguins teammate Josh Archibald. They became the first Mavs to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Guentzel’s performance recalled what local icon Bob Gibson did as a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher in World Series competition half a century ago. Like Gibson, Guentzel is now an Omaha sports legend. The city has a legitimate claim on him, too. He was born in Omaha when his father coached the Omaha Lancers. His two older brothers, Ryan and Gabe, also played collegiately.

He’s the second Omaha native to reach the NHL (Jed Ortmeyer in 2003 was the first).

The local connection extends to Guentzel’s father assisting one season at UNO under Blais (in 2010-2011), while the younger Guentzel also helped lead UNO to its only Frozen Four in 2015.

Mere weeks removed from gaining hockey immortality with his improbable heroics, he unwinds from the spotlight with family in his other hometown of Woodbury, Minnesota.

“It’s hard to put into words what happened,” he says. “It was hard to soak it all in at some points. With each win, the media got more and more crazy. It was definitely a crazy journey.”

photo by Richard Gagnon, Omaha Athletics

Preparation meets success

Guentzel’s skill and mindset proved well-suited for hockey’s biggest stage.

Mike Kemp, UNO associate athletic director and former Mavericks coach, praises his “high hockey IQ.”

“What makes him a special player at the highest level is his ability to think his way around the ice,” Blais says. “His biggest asset is his playmaking ability and his ability to get to the net.”

Former UNO teammate Justin Parizek says Guentzel has long-mastered the mental aspects of the game: “He thinks the game really well. He’s always a couple steps ahead of the play.”

UNO hockey broadcaster Terry Leahy admires Guentzel’s pedigree: “He just knows the game, and that comes right from his father and his brothers. He was just built from the ground up. His dad had a huge influence on that. His two brothers were really good college hockey players.”

Parizek envies the extra push Guentzel got at home: “His whole childhood he was pushed trying to keep up with his older brothers. Keeping up with bigger, stronger guys gave him that competitive edge. His dad’s a really good coach, and having that 24-7 extra coach in his ear has given him insights into how he can do things better.”

Archibald says it’s no wonder Guentzel was ready to shine: “He’s been preparing his entire life for that moment. Everybody along the way has put their piece in with him, and he’s taken it all in.”

“He was definitely groomed well,” says another former UNO linemate, Austin Ortega.

Even Guentzel’s father, University of Minnesota associate head coach Mike Guentzel, says the moment is “never too big” for his son.

The rising star credits his family for giving him what he needed to excel. “They instilled ‘you gotta work every day.’ It definitely implanted in my brain,” Guentzel says.

He’s grateful they shared in his shining moments—from that memorable first NHL game to hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“It’s definitely a family thing. I realize all the sacrifice they put in for me over the years in everything they did. They’re always there for me,” he says.

Guentzel’s dad and siblings never got this far in hockey, but they’ve been with him each step of the journey.

“Whenever I need something, I can look up to them and realize they’ve been through similar situations over their hockey careers,” he says. “They’ve definitely been huge for me, and it’s definitely cool to share this with my family.”

When dreams come true

Growing up, Guentzel dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup, just like thousands of other kids.

“But to have it come true my first year in the NHL is definitely crazy. I mean, I never would have expected that. It’s pretty special,” he says.

Securing the championship against Nashville, he says, was “a night I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Archibald says the occasion of two Omaha hockey products being part of a title team didn’t escape them.

“For both of us to play together at UNO and then to take that next step together in Pittsburgh was a great experience,” Archibald says, adding that as the Stanley Cup got passed around, “there was a moment on the ice when we were standing next to each other, and Jake looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re here. To do this together is the best thing in the world.’”

photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

Mind over matter

As the playoffs wore on, more hype came Guentzel’s way. Except for texts referencing his newfound celebrity, he says, “I tried to stay away from that stuff. You don’t want to get caught up in what people are saying. I just try to focus on what’s at hand.” As for media, he “gives them what they want” and moves on.

The well-grounded athlete applies a pragmatic approach to the game.

“Each level you go up, the competition gets harder,” Guentzel says. “You have to do whatever it takes to get there—if it’s staying late after practice, doing extra work. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. Growing up, you go through bantams, high school, juniors, and college. I’ve just stayed with it. I’ve tried not to think ahead of what’s happening in the moment. It’s the way you have to think. If you don’t think that way, you don’t really want to play, and you don’t really love the game.”

Others attest to his dedication.

“Everything he’s accomplished is due to the hard work he put in himself,” Ortega says, “and he got rewarded.”

Archibald knows well the sacrifice: “It doesn’t come easy. You have a lot of pressure on your back. But he pushed through everything. I think one of the things that helps him is being one of the hardest workers in the room.”

Guentzel feels his approach is consistent. “It hasn’t changed much,” he says. “People are going to be coming after you, so you’ve got to make sure you’re ready every day for everyone’s best.”

What some term “pressure to perform in the clutch,” he considers “a chance to do something special. I think as a player you like those moments. They’re fun to be a part of,” he says.

Of his Penguins debut, Guentzel says, “There were nerves for sure, but you just gotta stick with what got you there. There was a lot of emotion running through me that night. I was just trying to make the most of the opportunity, and remembering that all the hard work I’ve put in has finally led to my dream coming true.”

He felt at home in his new digs. His space in the Pittsburgh locker room was just beside Crosby, who took the rookie under his wing.

“It’s cool that they all kind of take you in and make you feel comfortable right away,” Guentzel says of his veteran teammates. “I think that’s why they have so much success.”

His own even-keeled attitude helped with the season grind, too.

“You want to be a good player in the league, so you’ve got to do the little things and keep working on them every day,” Guentzel says. “You’ve just got to stay with it, stay positive, because you’re going to go through tough patches.”

Coming up big

In the playoffs, he kept making big assists and goals.

“I watched all the games at home with my family,” Parizek says, “and sometimes we were like, ‘Are you kidding me, he did it again?’ It was a surreal run for him, and I couldn’t be more happy and proud.”

Guentzel’s scoring binge was out of character for someone reluctant to shoot in college.

“When I was at UNO, coach got upset with me that I was passing too much,” he says. “I was kind of a playmaker, and I always looked for the next play. As my career went on, I started to shoot more. I think I finally realized if I shoot more maybe I can score some more goals.”

“He’s a pass-first guy,” Blais confirms. “For three years we tried to get him to be a little bit more selfish, and when the opportunity’s there, shoot it.”

Making that transition in the NHL is unusual.

“That’s a credit to Sidney Crosby,” Guentzel says. “You’re just trying to find areas on the ice where he can get you the puck because he can pretty much get it to you wherever you’re at. I was very fortunate.”

Blais agrees Guentzel found the right mentor.

“I think when it really clicked is when he started playing with Sidney Crosby,”  Blais says. “It’s one thing playing for Pittsburgh, but it’s another thing for Sidney Crosby to want this 22-year old kid to play with him. That’s pretty special when the best player in the world wants Jake Guentzel as his linemate because he knows Jake plays the same way.


And I’m sure Sidney Crosby said, ‘Hey, Jake, when I get a pass from you, I’m going to shoot, and when you get it from me, you shoot.’ I mean, that’s the way it works. I think when Jake learned how to move and shoot the puck at the highest level is when he took off. Credit to Jake and his coaching staff but probably the most influential was Sidney Crosby.”

photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

Finding a coach and expanding his game

Despite not being the scorer his coach wanted, Guentzel treasured playing for Blais: “He was huge for me. I can’t thank him enough for all he did for me. He rounded out my game. He made me realize that to play every day you have to be at your top. That’s a big thing he impacted me with. I wouldn’t be the player I am today if I didn’t play in Omaha for him.”

Leaving after his junior year did not come lightly. “It was tough leaving Omaha for sure,” he says. “I just thought I was ready for the next challenge. It all worked out.”

Blais says being the close hockey family the Guentzels are, they made the decision jointly and he fully supported it. “Jake’s always been that player that has reached the highest level. He did it in college and now he’s doing it in the NHL. He’s one of the top players I’ve coached in all my years of coaching.”

UNO broadcaster Terry Leahy recalls Guentzel “began his college career the way he began his NHL career. “He had an assist right off the bat his first game as a Maverick—and he was on his way. The biggest memory I have of him is that his anticipation and passing skills were unbelievable.”

“He started out like gangbusters,” Blais remembers. “He broke Greg Zanon’s assist record his first year. Even though other teams were keying on him with their best players, Jake still managed to get his points. Even in the NHL, playing against the other team’s top line, Jake still managed to make plays and to get his goals.”

“He’s a complete package mentally and physically,” Leahy says. “He can fly, shoot, pass. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him wearing a [captain’s] letter for the Penguins in the not-too-distant future. He’s very mature…and he’s a pot-stirrer. He can chirp [trash talk] with the best. He was a little restrained his first year in the NHL, but there were moments in the finals you could see him starting to get under some Nashville skins. That’s definitely a part of his game. He’s got that baby face, but he can spring those horns pretty quickly after a whistle.”

photo by Mark Kuhlmann, Omaha Athletics

His UNO hockey family

Guentzel is happy his playing, not talking, is raising UNO’s national profile. “I only think it’s going to make the school become even more of a hockey place and have people realize Omaha’s on the rise,” he says.

“It’s a huge step for UNO hockey,” Archibald agrees. “It kind of puts it on the map in an unprecedented way.”

Leahy says with Guentzel and Archibald in the finals “UNO was on display through the whole run.” The fact that they are Stanley Cup winners “will be huge for recruiting.” UNO’s Mike Kemp and new hockey head coach Mike Gabinet have echoed such sentiments.

Austin Ortega takes inspiration from Guentzel’s example. “Seeing him do so well has definitely given me a little extra motivation and expectation to reach that goal and do what he’s done,” Ortega says.

Guentzel has not forgotten his UNO hockey family. “I keep in touch with them almost every day. They’re close friends. They’re definitely special to me,” he says.

“He has a lot of support back in Omaha and wherever his old teammates are,” Ortega says. “Myself and two other guys saw him for games three and four in Nashville. He was just the same old kid that we knew.”

“He’s not going to change, he’s not going to be cocky or arrogant about it,” Justin Parizek says. “He’s still going to go about his business and be the great guy he is and treat everyone the same.”

photo by Joe Sargent, Pittsburgh Penguins

Making his mark

Dean Blais can still hardly believe what transpired.

“To get his name on the Stanley Cup, to get a championship ring, to go from making $80,000 to $800,000, plus the Cup bonus. Not bad for a kid right out of college,” Blais says. “Everything looks bright for his future.”

Guentzel doesn’t think he’s arrived yet.

“I’ve still got to establish my spot,” he says, speaking with Omaha Magazine in June. “I’m still a young guy. I’ve got to go and try to make the team out of camp. You never know what’s going to happen, so you’ve just gotta try and make a name for yourself and do what it takes to stay at that level. You can’t take it for granted because there’s someone right behind who’s going to try to take your spot.”

Archibald senses Guentzel is hungry to “go back out there and prove to everybody he can do it again—I have all the faith in the world he’s going to be able to do it.”

“You gotta enjoy it, because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Guentzel says.

Visit nhl.com/penguins for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

March 8, 2018 1 comment

Giving a helping hand to Nebraska greats

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Memory-makers.

That’s what former Husker gridiron great Jerry Murtaugh calls the ex-collegiate athletes whose exploits we recall with larger-than-life nostalgia.

Mythic-like hero portrayals aside, athletes are only human. Their bodies betray them. Medical interventions and other emergencies drain resources. Not every old athlete can pay pressing bills or afford needed care. That’s where the Nebraska Greats Foundation Murtaugh began five years ago comes in. The charitable organization assists memory-makers who lettered in a sport at any of Nebraska’s 15 universities or colleges.

“All the money we generate goes into helping the memory-makers and their families,” says Murtaugh.

Its genesis goes back to Murtaugh missing a chance to help ailing ex-Husker star Andra Franklin, who died in 2006. When he learned another former NU standout, Dave Humm, was hurting, he made it his mission to help. Murtaugh got Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to endorse the effort and write the first check.

“The foundation has been a source of financial aid to many former Huskers who are in need, but also, and maybe equally important, it has helped bind former players together in an effort to stay in touch and to serve each other. I sense a feeling of camaraderie and caring among out former players not present in many other athletic programs around the country,” Osborne says.

The foundation’s since expanded its reach to letter-winners from all Nebraska higher ed institutions.

By the start of 2018, more than $270,000 raised by the foundation went to cover the needs of 12 recipients. Three recipients subsequently died from cancer. As needed, NGF provides for the surviving spouse and children of memory-makers.

The latest and youngest grantee is also the first female recipient – Brianna Perez. The former York College All-America softball player required surgery for a knee injury suffered playing ball. Between surgery, flying to Calif. to see her ill mother, graduate school and unforeseen expenses, Perez went into debt.

“She found out about us, we reviewed her application and her bills were paid off,” NGF administrator Margie Smith says. “She cried and so did I.”

It’s hard for still proud ex-athletes to accept or ask for help, says all-time Husker hoops great Maurtice Ivy, who serves on the board. Yet they find themselves in vulnerable straits that can befall anyone. Giving back to those who gave so much, she says, “is a no-brainer.”

The hard times that visit these greats are heartbreaking. Some end up in wheelchairs, others homeless. Some die and leave family behind.

“I cry behind closed doors,” Murtaugh says. “One of the great ones we lost, a couple weeks before he passed away said, ‘All I’m asking is take care of my family.’ So, we’re doing our best. What I’m proud of is, we don’t leave them hanging. Our athlete, our brother, our sister has died and we just don’t stop there – we clear up all the medical bills the family faces. We’re there for them.”

“We become advocates, cheerleaders and sounding boards for them and their families,” Smith says. “I am excited when I write checks to pay their bills, thrilled when they make a full recovery and cry when they pass away. But we’re helping our memory makers through their time of need. Isn’t this what life is all about? “

Smith says the foundation pays forward what the athletes provided us in terms of feelings and memories.

“We all want to belong to something good. That is why the state’s collegiate sports programs are so successful.  We cheer our beloved athletes to do their best to make us feel good. We brag about the wins, cry over the losses. The outcome affects us because we feel a sense of belonging. These recipients gave their all for us. They served as role models.

“Now it’s our turn to take care of them.”

Murtaugh is sure it’s an idea whose time has come.

“Right now, I think we’re the only state that helps our former athletes,” he says. “Before I’m dead, I’m hoping every state picks up on this and helps their own because the NCAA isn’t going to help you after you’re done. We know that. And that’s what we’re here for – we need to help our own. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Monies raised go directly to creditors, not recipients.

He says two prominent athletic figures with ties to the University of Nebraska – Barry Alvarez, who played at NU and coached Wisconsin, where he’s athletic director, and Craig Bohl, who played and coached at NU, led North Dakota State to three national titles, and now coaches Wyoming – wish to start similar foundations .

Murtaugh and his board, comprised mostly of ex-athletes like himself, are actively getting the word out across the state end beyond to identify more potential recipients and raise funds to support them. He’s confident of the response.

“We’re going to have the money to help all the former athletes in the state who need our help, Athletes and fans are starting to really understand the impact they all make for these recipients. People have stepped up and donated a lot of money. A lot of people have done a lot of things for us. But we need more recipients. We have some money in the bank that needs to be used.”

Because Nebraska collegiate fan bases extend statewide and nationally, Murtaugh travels to alumni and booster groups to present about the foundation’s work. Everywhere he goes, he says, people get behind it.

“Nebraskans are the greatest fans in the country and they back their athletes in all 15 colleges and universities. It’s great to see. I’m proud to be part of this, I really am.”

Foundation fundraisers unite the state around a shared passion. A golf classic in North Platte last year featured the three Husker Heisman trophy winners – Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier, Eric Crouch – for an event that raised $40,000. Another golf outing is planned for July in Kearney that will once more feature the Heisman trio.

Murtaugh envisions future events across the state so fans can rub shoulders with living legends and help memory-makers with their needs.

He sees it as one big “family” coming together “to help our own.”

Visit nebraskagreatsfoundation.org.

Huskers’ Winning Tradition: Surprise Return to the Top for Nebraska Volleyball

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Huskers’ Winning TraditionSurprise Return to the Top for Nebraska Volleyball

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Scott Bruhn

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln volleyball team entered 2017 with tempered expectations after losing three All-Americans and two assistant coaches from the previous season. But what began as a rebuilding year became a 32-4 national championship campaign for the overachieving Huskers, who capped an unexpected return to the pinnacle of their sport by defeating Florida in four sets in the NCAA title match on Dec. 16.

Thousands of Big Red fans made the trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, where a record crowd of 18,000-plus viewed the deciding contest.

While tradition-rich Husker football has been in the doldrums for two decades, the equally tradition-rich volleyball program has carried the school’s elite athletic banner. NU volleyball and its gridiron brothers have now won five NCAA titles apiece. This was NU’s second volleyball crown in three years and the fourth under head coach John Cook since succeeding program architect Terry Pettit in 2000.

Cook was an assistant under Pettit, whose stellar work at Nebraska—including one NCAA title (along with his overall contributions to the sport)—landed him in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. The current Huskers volleyball coach joined his predecessor as an inductee in the fall of 2017. Cook’s formal induction came only hours before facing the No. 1 seed Penn State in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Cook has said the 2017 Huskers, led by Papillion native and setter extraordinaire Kelly Hunter, were a joy to coach because they actually lived out their season slogan: “with each other, for each other.” That mantra got tested early when the young, inexperienced squad opened the season without an injured Hunter on the court and promptly suffered two losses—one against future NCAA finals opponent Florida. But the Huskers stayed the course and with Hunter back at setter the rest of the way, they rallied to finish the non-conference schedule with a 7-3 mark. The team really found its groove in tough Big Ten play, going 19-1 to share the league championship with arch-rival Penn State, and finished the regular season 26-4.

Hunter and fellow seniors Briana Holman (middle blocker) and Annika Albrecht (outside hitter) led the way with junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke and junior libero Kenzie Maloney. Two dynamic freshmen—middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and outside hitter Jazz Sweet—rounded out the balanced team volleyball approach that became NU’s trademark. No superstars. Just solid players executing their roles and having each other’s backs, whether at the net or in the back-row.

Hunter, Albrecht, and Foecke did earn All-America honors.

Months before seeing Penn State in the semifinals, on Sept. 22, NU dealt the No. 1-ranked and star-studded Nittany Lions their only regular-season loss by sweeping them at Happy Valley. The Huskers earned the right to host a first-round NCAA Tournament playoff in Lincoln, where fans jammed the Devaney Center. Fifth-seeded NU swept both its foes to advance to regionals in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU downed Colorado and host Kentucky, dropping only one set in the process.

For their national semifinal match in K.C., the Huskers drew Big Ten nemesis and No. 1 overall seed Penn State. In an epic classic, the Big Red prevailed in five sets. Then, in the ensuing final against Florida, NU avenged that early season loss to the Gators in capturing collegiate volleyball’s top prize. Hunter and Foecke were named co-outstanding players of the tournament.

In 2018, NU loses Hunter, Holman, and Albrecht—look for at least one to be the latest Husker to make the U.S. national team—but the team otherwise returns with the core stable of their 2017 championship team. NU will add four top recruits to the mix, too. As defending champs, no one will underestimate the Huskers this time. A key to the season will be finding a setter to replace Hunter, the team’s on-court quarterback. Incoming freshman Nicklin Hames may just be the heir apparent in that key role.

But you can bet that Cook & Co. will stress the benefits of playing team volleyball in search of another title.

To learn more about how volleyball has become the top sport in Nebraska (and how Omaha plays an important role in the talent pipeline) be sure to pick up the January/February edition of Omaha Magazine featuring my cover story. Or link to the story here: https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/21/the-state-of-vol…rican-volleyball/

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