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If the play’s the thing, then what about gender?


If the play’s the thing, then what about gender?

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Theater offers windows on the world, yet only a fraction of plays produced anywhere are written by women. This arts parity issue has urgency with national initiatives extending to Omaha, where theater artists variously discuss the problem and implement remedies.

“The initiatives have been around for about a decade now,” said Creighton University theater professor Amy Lane. “The most well-known, 50/50 by 2020, started in response to a study that revealed women’s voices grossly underrepresented in theaters.”

In 2006, 17 percent of plays professionally produced nationwide (12 percent on Broadway) were written by women. “Surprising,” Lane said, given that “60 percent of the theater audience is women.”

She wonders if “there will be true gender equity by 2020” and what “progress” has been made thus far.

UNO theater professor Cindy Melby Phaneuf echoes many when she says, “My opinion is we are moving in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.” She heads the National Theatre Conference, whose Women Playwright Initiative has produced 500 plays by women since 2011 and expects to reach 1,000 by 2020. “I am encouraged by the energy and interest in gender parity, but am most interested in taking action.”

“I support these initiatives and applaud the theaters implementing them,” said Omaha playwright Ellen Struve.

Struve’s had plays mounted at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) and Shelterbelt Theatre and across the nation.

“When I began writing plays, I didn’t know many other women getting produced on a regular basis. This past year I was able to invite more than a dozen Omaha-based women playwrights to participate in the 365 Women A Year project. It was so exhilarating to look at that list of writers. Even better was to see a few of the plays fully-produced by Denise Chapman at the Union for Contemporary Art.”

2017 panels hosted by the Blue Barn Theater and the University of Nebraska at Omaha dialogued about the social-economic context behind exclusion and why plays written by women would enrich any season.

“Panels are great for raising awareness. Representation matters: for women and female-identifying playwrights, directors, actors, designers, crews, administrators. Discussions are fine, but action is what is needed,” said  Lane.

She created the 21 & Over series at OCP “to introduce Omaha to new works and new voices.” 21 & Over seasons were 50/50 by 2020 compliant, she said..

OCP’s ongoing Alternative Programming series continues to be diverse.

Creighton and UNO are devoting their respective theater departments’ entire 2018-2019 performance seasons to works by women playwrights.

Lane said Creighton’s “made a commitment to continue with the 50/50 by 2020 Movement” beyond this season.

Phaneuf and colleagues want to move things forward.

“UNO and Creighton have agreed to shine a light on what our greater Omaha community is doing already and look to the future to provide more opportunities to revel in women’s voices. The goal is gender parity on a permanent basis as an ordinary way of programming our seasons representing diverse voices. With parity also comes a desire to produce plays by writers of color. We are constantly on the lookout for plays that represent a variety of cultures and heritages.”

Outside the academic setting, Omaha presents a mixed bag in theater gender parity.

Phaneuf said despite some gains, many Omaha theaters present seasons with only one or two works by women. Sometimes, none.

“Those making artistic decisions at Omaha theaters either care about this issue or they don’t. If they care, then it is not a difficult task to make sure a theater’s season includes works by women,” Lane said. “There are plenty of terrific plays out there and plenty of resources to find them. If this is not an issue that matters to them, then they shouldn’t be surprised if they get called out. I think more of us who do care should speak out more when we see gender parity ignored.”

OCP artistic director Kimberly Hickman said “more opportunities for female artists is among her programming guidelines.” This past season several OCP playwrights and composers identified as women as did all its guest directors and many designers.

“Those priorities remain in place for 2018-2019.”

“Parity in theater is a complex issue that can’t be simplified to only gender,” Hickman said.

A session on female leadership she attended at a recent conference for regional theaters brought this home.

“While the room of women had many things in common, our experiences were very different due to ethnicity, sexuality, economic status, academic background, location. All these factors need to be taken into consideration. I believe the best way to make progress is to look at who is at the table making decisions. If the people all look the same, that is a problem and steps need to be taken to evolve. I also think accountability is important. I have intentionally surrounded myself with people I know will hold me accountable.”

The Shelterbelt has a demonstrated “strong commitment to gender parity, not only for playwrights, but for all production positions,” said executive director Roxanne Wach. “We do try to include at least 50 percent women playwrights in a season, while still creating a balance in storytelling and genres. It’s a conscious choice by our reading committee and a shared vision of our board.

“I personally feel if we don’t start with parity in the small theaters, it will never happen in larger theaters.”

Shelterbelt’s won recognition from the International Centre for Women Playwrights for reaching equity goals.

“To look just at playwrights is only scratching the surface,” Wach adds. “We’ve got to start valuing the work women bring to all areas of theater production and the great value in having different points of view.”

Omaha’s largest footprint on the national theater scene, the Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC), uses a 100 percent blind reading process selecting plays.

“We are one of the few major development programs that do this,” producing artistic director Kevin Lawler said. “We have had many long debates about whether we should change to have predetermined selection percentages to include gender, race, identity, but the overwhelming consensus by our staff and those who attend the conference is to keep the selections blind.

“Even with a blind selection we have always been close to parity. This year was a clean 50-50 split. Our women playwrights often appear on the Kilroys List (of most recommended unproduced or underproduced plays).”

UNO’s new Connections series is being curated from GPTC works by underrepresented playwrights.

GPTC playwright Sara Farrington terms parity “a triggery question” and initiatives to date “a baby step.”

“Many people simply don’t and won’t trust plays by women. It is astonishing people still assume women can or will only write about being imprisoned by their bodies or men. That idea has been beaten into a mass theater-going audience by over-produced, overrated, wildly misogynistic male playwrights and producers and by artistic directors financing and programming plays with reductive and fearful depictions of female characters.

“Women playwrights have a deep, refined, 200-proof rage. Rage makes for badass and innovative storytelling. Women playwrights tell stories backwards, sideways, in a spiral, upside down, from angles you’d never expect. They are utterly complex, psychologically profound and contemporary.”

Fellow GPTC playwright Shayne Kennedy, a Creighton grad, calls for systemic change.

“I believe men and women tell stories differently and because the creative industries have long been dominated by male voices, we as a culture have become conditioned to hear in those voices. I think to correct the imbalance we are going to need some risk-takers, visionaries and deliberately opened minds.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Link to the 2018-2019 UNO theater season at:

http://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-communication-fine-arts-and-media/theatre/index.php

Select UNO Theater 2018-2019 season:

TARTUFFE (Studio)

by Molière, adapted by Constance Congdon from a literal prose translation by Virginia Scott

Director Jackson Newman

August 23-25

THE CLEARING

by Helen Edmundson

Director Lara Marsh

September 26-29, October 3-6

SECRET GARDEN

Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman, Music by Lucy Simon

Director D. Scott Glasser, Musical Director Shelby VanNordstand

October 31-November 3, 7-10, 14-18

CONNECTIONS

Director Dr. Ron Zank

February 20-23, 27- March 2

MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

by Anne Washburn

Director: Jeremy Stoll

March 14-17, 2019

THE WOLVES

by Sarah DeLappe

Director Dr. Cindy Melby Phaneuf

April 10-13, 17-20, 2019

___________________________

Link to the 2018-2019 Creighton theater season at:

https://www.creighton.edu/ccas/fineandperformingarts/boxoffice/

Select Creighton Theater 2018-2019 season:

HANDLED

Written by Shayne Kennedy

World premiere play/Mainstage Theater

October 31 – November 4, 2018

KINDERTRANSPORT

Written by Diane Samuels

Play/Studio Theater

February 13 -17, 2019

LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL

Book by Heather Hach; Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benajmin

Musical/Mainstage Theater

March 27-31, 2019

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Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter


Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter

©by Lei Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Giving Voice to the VoicelessDon Doll, SJ

Since first picking up a camera in the 1960s while ministering to residents of Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Rev. Don Doll of Omaha has become a well-traveled, award-winning photojournalist. The Jesuit priest is perhaps best known for chronicling the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people’s attempts to integrate traditional ways in nontraditional times. Two acclaimed books, Crying for a Vision (1976, Morgan and Morgan) and Vision Quest (1994, Crown), depict the suffering and resurgence of these Indian cultures through his haunting pictures and his subjects’ stirring words.

For a pair of National Geographic spreads he lived with Yupik Eskimos and Athapaskan Indians to record the daily rituals of native societies far outside the mainstream. For the Jesuit Refugee Service he captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. For yet more assignments he went to Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic and other remote locales to document the disenfranchised.

“I’ve thought of myself as giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Doll, a fine arts professor at Creighton University, where he holds the Charles and Mary Heider endowed Jesuit Chair. “My work has generally been about other cultures — about how other people live and work. It’s been about telling people’s stories and breaking some stereotypes. As a priest, I’m formed by the faith I’ve grown into and one of the foundations of that faith is to have special appreciation for other people. And I think when you point a camera at someone it should be a loving look at that person.”

A master still photographer, Doll’s images are notable for their clarity, power and depth. Portraits, like the enigmatic ones for Vision Quest, are among his favorites. “I love making insightful pictures of people that reveal something of their character, but leave a question mark. I think any good portrait has a bit of mystery and ambiguity in it. Without raising that question, it becomes boring.”

A New Path
Major publications have long sought Doll’s talent, but he has remained selective about the projects he takes. Until recently, he used a 35-millimeter Leica to tell his stories. Now, at 63, an age when most artists slip comfortably into a safe niche, he is reinventing himself as a videographer.

While far from abandoning still work, he now mainly works in digital video and, along with writer Elizabeth O’Keefe, a former student of his who is publications coordinator for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, he is beginning to make waves in this new field. A story he shot and that he and O’Keefe edited and produced appeared on ABC’s “Nightline last year. The story, “Finding Ernesto,” grew out of a report the pair prepared in El Salvador on the efforts of Jesuit priests to reunite loved ones separated during the civil war there. A second story by the team — this one chronicling a Jesuit priest who is a kind of Martin Luther King figure in India — is being considered for future “Nightline” airing.

The El Salvador and India pieces are installments in a larger, multi-media documentary project by Doll and O’Keefe called The Jesuits: Two Thousand Years After Christ, which illustrates the Jesuit order’s mandate of working toward social justice and respecting other cultures. Additional stories for that project include a biography on Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius, which sent the filmmakers to Spain and Italy last spring, and a look at the Jesuit presence on the reservations, which brought Doll back to his old stomping grounds.

How he came to photograph old friends in video after portraying them in stills is emblematic of his need to find new means of expressing himself and his faith. The ever-inquisitive Doll attended intensive professional workshops on Web publishing and DVD production. Part of his motivation to learn new forms was to introduce his students to Wed design, a class he has taught at Creighton, and to gain more personal expertise making CD-ROMs.

“I began to learn that just having pictures and type on a page is not enough. You also need sound and video. I saw people multi-purposing their material — interviews, photographs or whatever — and publishing them in different media.” Attracted by that idea, Doll incorporated his Vision Quest work, both the images he made and the sound recordings of interviews he conducted, into a CD-ROM but found many interviews unusable due to excessive ambient noise. “I resolved the next time I did any project the sound was going to be outstanding.” Under the instruction of veteran videographers Doll not only learned state-of-the-art audio but, much to his surprise, developed an affinity for making moving pictures.

Making Moving Pictures

Transitioning from the still to video format has meant learning a whole new set of techniques, realities and assumptions.

“Video is a storytelling medium. It’s more about the words than it is about the pictures. Before, I was making good pictures that almost supplanted the words,” he said. “Now, I’ve had to learn how to shoot a sequence — with a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up — and how to cover sequences and how to do interviews and how to put it all together. The guys who have been doing this for 20 years know a lot of tricks I certainly don’t. But I think the advantage I have is the compositional, lighting, and story skills I bring. I’m aware of every visual detail in the frame. I know how to layer a picture with meaning in every corner.”

Overall, he described as “exciting” his adventure in video. Gone, however, are the days when he could quietly insinuate himself into a scene and be an inconspicuous observer with only his small hand-held camera in-tow. Now, he lugs around a big, clattering batch of audio-visual devices that require more set-up, more cooperation, more planning.

For his first video project Doll chose a familiar subject — the reservations. Today, after completing several pieces, he feels he is hitting his stride. “I think I know how to shoot good video now. I’m getting some nice stuff. And I’m finally feeling comfortable editing, which is a whole other skill dealing with time and sound and pacing. The audio cut goes down first and then the pictures are dropped in, which is just the complete opposite of how I worked before. Have I found my voice totally in this new medium?  I’m not sure. But the beauty of digital video is that you hear people talk — in their own voice — with real fervor and passion. That’s a powerful tool for people who have something to say.”

Just Doing It
The new technology also allows anyone with the ability to bypass traditional media paths and produce Hollywood-Madison Avenue quality video on their own home studio set-up. Doll shoots with a Canon XL-1 digital video camera-sound system and edits on a dual processor Macintosh G4 (“my souped-up personal computer”) with Apple Final Cut Pro software. “We produced a program for ‘Nightline’ on it, and they were blown away,” Doll said. “Now, you can conceive a project or story or idea and, with a few thousand bucks, actually go out and do it. You can produce professional videos or movies or broadcast television programs. DVD technology is going to be really big. We’ll see a whole new generation of filmmakers.”

Currently on a leave of absence from teaching, Doll plans wrapping-up the Jesuit project (to be released as a DVD) by July and returning to the classroom next fall brimming with new ideas. “That’s how I’ve always done things. I teach for three or four years, then I take off to go do something and then I reflect on that and bring it back to the teaching experience. It’s a mutually enriching process.” As for new photo shoots, he said, “With this endowed chair I have the resources to go photograph anywhere in the world I want if I find a story I want to cover. I have the luxury of going where my heart is. It’s kind of sweet.”

Eduardo Aguilar: Living a dream that would not be denied

April 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Eduardo Aguilar:

Living a dream that would not be denied

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico (el-perico.com)


As Eduardo Aguilar walked down an Omaha Creighton Prep hallway one school day last April, he had no idea a lifelong dream would soon be secured. Counselor Jim Swanson pulled the then-high school senior out of his international relations class on the pretext of seeing how he was doing. It’s something Swanson often did with Aguilar, whose undocumented parents were deported to Mexico when he was about ten. Aguilar lived with Swanson and his family an entire year – one in a succession of homes Aguilar resided in over six years.

The counselor and student talked that spring morning as they had countless times, only this time school president Father Tom Neitzke joined them. The priest shook Aguilar’s hand and invited him into his office, where several adults, including media members, awaited.

“I was confused and shocked,” Aguilar recalled. “I thought I was in trouble.”

Creighton University president Father Daniel Hendrickson then informed him he was receiving a full-ride scholarship worth $200,000 funded by donors and the G. Robert Muchemore Foundation.

Cameras captured it all.

“To have that news thrown at me out of nowhere was incredible,” Aguilar said. “I just felt like God answered my prayer because it was always my dream to go to Creighton. I was so happy.

“I still can’t believe it even happened. I’m forever grateful for the scholarship donors and for the people that believed in me.”

KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz, who filed a touching story on him, came away impressed by Aguilar.

“He’s a brilliant and hardworking guy and I feel privileged to have met him and to have highlighted his extraordinary efforts to reach the Mexican-American dream.”

The scholarship came just as Aguilar despaired his dream would go unrealized.

“There weren’t many options for me at that time and I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is the end of my journey – maybe I’m not going to go to college.’ I was in a bad mood about it that same day.”

After learning his good fortune, he called his parents, Loreny and Jose Aguilar.

“They were extremely excited to hear I’m continuing my education, especially at Creighton University, because they knew from a very young age I wanted to go there, They’re absolutely humbled their son received such a generous gift to attend such a prestigious place and that people believed in their son.

“Even though not having them here physically hurts, they’ve motivated me throughout. They’ve given me words of wisdom and advice. They’ve definitely pushed me to be best that I can.”

Aguilar also appreciates the support he’s received in his folks’ absence, first at Jesuit Academy, then at Prep, and now at CU, where he’s finishing his freshman year. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, who are general laborers in Tijuana, when they got deported. He and his older brother Jose relied on family and friends.

“It was a very traumatizing experience,” Aguilar said. “I felt powerless. It really opened my eyes to the harsh place life can bring you at times. It definitely made me mature a lot faster than my peers.”

Jesuit Academy staff rallied behind him.

“They assured me everything would be okay, I decided I had to kick my academics into gear because it was the only thing to get me ahead without my parents here.”

Three months after that sudden separation, Aguilar and his folks were reunited in Mexico. He lived three years there with them.

“I enjoyed it down there with family. I learned a lot. It really humbled me and made me into the person I am today. Now, I’m just happy to be getting my education. I don’t really care about material possessions.”

By 13, his yearning for America would not be denied.

“I realized in Mexico I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I would here. My mom was very hesitant about me coming back because I was so young. But she agreed. Leaving was very difficult. I came back with a family member. I ended up staying with him for awhile and then i just moved from house to house.

“It’s been a journey.”

Few of his peers at Prep knew his situation.

“The majority of them found out on graduation day, They were surprised because they never saw me upset or sad. I was always smiling, happy. They were astonished I was able to go through all that, but it’s due to the support system I had.”

Prep staff took him under their wing his four years there.

“Jim Swanson has been a great motivator. He and his wife served as my second family. When I needed them the most, they opened the doors to their house to me. I see him as my second father. I have the utmost respect for him and his family.”

Aguilar also grew close to art teacher Jeremy Caniglia

“He left a great impact on me. I still reach out to him.”

Aguilar used art and slam poetry to process and express his intense feelings.

In college, he’s found professors sympathetic to his plight. He calls CU Vice Provost for Enrollment Mary Chase “one of my go-to persons,” adding, “She always checks up on me.”

“It really means a lot to me to have extra structure and support and to know these people actually care and believe I have potential to do something in life,” Aguilar said.

He’s studying international business and corporate law in CU’s 3-3 program, which will allow him to earn an undergraduate degree and a law degree in six years instead of seven. His dream job is with Tesla Motors, which produces mass-market electric cars.

“Renewable energy has always fascinated me and Elon Musk (Tesla founder-CEO) has always been one of my idols.”

Thus far, Aguilar said, “College has been an incredible, eye-opening experience.”

Aguilar hopes his personal story empowers others caught in the immigration vice.

“If this can serve any person going through a similar situation or hardship and help them to succeed, then I’m totally for that.”

A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

March 17, 2017 1 comment

A case of cognitive athletic dissonance

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Like a lot of you out there who root for the athletic programs of all three in-state universities competing at the Division I level, I’m feeling conflicted right now. While it does my heart good to see the Creighton men’s and women’s hoops teams seeded so high in the NCAA Tournament, and this coming off strong performances by the Bluejay men’s soccer and women’s volleyball teams, I’m disappointed that both the University of Nebraska’s men’s and women’s basketball teams suffered historic losing seasons and didn’t stand a chance of making the Big Dance. The fact is that every major Husker men’s team sport – basketball, football and baseball – is in a down cycle. Indeed, among revenue generating sports in Lincoln, only volleyball is a year-in and year-out winner with the national prestige and conference-NCAA titles to show for it.

NU softball is still competitive but it’s been a long time since one of its teams has made a real run in the NCAA Tournament.

On the men’s side, NU used to be able to point to nationally relevant programs across the board as a selling tool to recruits. That just isn’t the case anymore. Baseball has been adrift for a while now and it doesn’t look like Darin Erstad has what it takes to make it a College World Series contender again.

 

Although it likely was in use long before, I first found the block N as it appears here in the 1970 media guide. If anyone can find it much earlier, please let me know. Huskers_script_2016.gif (9489 bytes)

 

Logo

 

  

 

Men’s hoops in Lincoln has been a joke for a long time now and it’s no longer funny. The succession of coaches from the early 1980s on has bred instability and NU just can’t seem to get it right in terms of hiring the right person for the job. Many of us suspect the real problem is a lack of institutional will and support to make basketball a priority of excellence. While the men have not been able to get their act together, we could usually count on the women to get things right. Yes, the program did go through some bumps with its own succession of coaches before reaching new heights under Connie Yori but then it all unraveled in seemingly the space of one chaotic season that saw Yori forced out amidst a scandal and player revolt. Where it goes from here under Amy Williams is anybody’s guess but a 7-22 record was not exactly a promising start, though she admittedly stepped into a program riddled with personnel holes and damaged psyches. Williams has the pedigree and track record to resurrect the program but how it collapsed so suddenly is still a shock.

Even the volleyball program. though still a perennial national contender, has lost ground to Creighton’s program. That’s actually a good thing for not only CU but the entire state and for the sport of volleyball in Nebraska. It’s another indicator of just how strong the volleyball culture is here. But I’m not sure NU ever thought CU would catch up in volleyball. The Bluejays have. The two programs are very close talent-wise and coaching-wise. In fact it’s become readily evident the Bluejays possess the potential to overtake the Huskers in the near future, many as soon as this coming season.

Then there’s the Omaha Mavericks. Its linchpin hockey program just lost its most important tie to national credibility with coach Dean Blais retiring. He got the Mavs to the promised land of the Frozen Four. Will whoever his successor ends up being be able to get Omaha back there and make the program the consistent Top 20 contender the university expects? Only time will tell. Since that run to the Frozen Four in 2015, hockey’s taken a decided step back, but the Omaha men’s basketball program has shown serious signs that it could be the real bell-weather program before all is said and done. Omaha came up just short in securing an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but still had post-season options available to it only to say no to them, which is strange given the university is desperate for a nationally relevant athletics program.

Ever since Omaha made the near-sighted decision to drop both football and wrestling, which were its two most successful men’s sports, the university has hung all its athletics fortunes on hockey. Now that hockey has seemingly plateaued and lost its legendary leader, basketball becomes the new hope. But basketball is a crowded field nationally speaking and no Maverick sport other than hockey has ever really caught on with Omahans. I would like to think that Omaha Maverick hoops could but I won’t believe it until I see it.

With basketball still struggling to find a following despite its recent rise, I bet university officials are wishing they still had wrestling and football around to balance the scales and give Omaha athletics more opportunities for fan support and national prestige. The way the NU football program has continued to struggle, a kick-ass Omaha gridiron program at the Football Championship Subdivision level would sure be welcome right about now. Omaha could have kept football and potentially thrived as a FCS powerhouse. But NU regents, administrators and boosters didn’t want Omaha to potentially sap Big Red’s fan and recruiting base. Too bad, because the two programs could have found a way to co-exist and even benefit each other.

 

 

Steven M. Sipple: Different boss, same message: Win and win big

Shawn Eichorst

 

Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton athletic director

Bruce Rasmussen

 

Trev Alberts said as UNO inches closer to the end of the transition to D-I, the Mavericks are ready. (Courtesy Photo UNO Athletics)

Trev Alberts

 

All of which takes us back to Creighton. Of the three in-state DI universities, CU’s proven to have the best contemporary model for successful, competitive and stable athletics. The Bluejays have built sustainable, winning men’s and women’s programs and they’ve found the right coaches time after time. Other than two major misses in Willis Reed and Rick Johnson, CU men’s basketball has been remarkably well led for more than 50 years. Women’s hoops has enjoyed the same kind of continuity and leadership over the last 35 years. And so on with the school’s other athletic programs. Over a long period of time the one constant has been Bruce Rasmussen, a former very successful coach there whose performance as athletic director has been nothing short of brilliant.

Culture is everything in today’s thinking and CU’s culture borne of its values-based Jesuit legacy and direction is rock solid and unchanging. This small private school has turned out to be the strongest in-state DI athletic department in the 2000s. Rasmussen’s excellent hires and big picture vision, plus the support of university presidents, have given the Bluejays a foundation that NU must envy. Even CU’s drastically upgraded facilities now favorably compare to or exceed NU’s.

Trev Alberts at UNO has proven a stronger administrator as athletic director than anyone on the outside looking in imagined, but I believe, though he’ll never admit it, that he regrets or will regret giving up the two programs that meant the most to the university. Even with that miscue, he’s built a firm foundation going forward. Baxter Arena is a nice addition but there’s no proof yet that area fans will pack it for UNO athletics other than hockey. If hoops doesn’t fly there, then UNO basketball is never going to capture fans the way it deserves to and that’s a shame.

Nebraska, meanwhile, stands on shaky ground. This is the weakest spot NU’s been in, in terms of overall athletic success, since the late 1960s-early 1970s. When other sports struggled then, the Husker athletic department always had its monolithic football program to fall back on, bail it out and keep it afloat. After nearly a generation of below par results, if things don’t dramatically change for the Big Red on the field and soon then NU’s once automatic crutch is in danger of no longer being there. If there’s no elite basketball program to pick up the football slack, NU athletics has nothing left to hang its hat on. Does anyone really have faith that NU athletic director Shawn Eichorst is making the right moves to return NU to where it once was? A lot of what’s come down is beyond his control, but the hires he makes are very much in his control. The four big questions are whether Mike Riley, Darin Erstad, Amy Williams and Tim Miles are the right coaches leading their respective programs. My opinion is that Riley is not. The sample size at NU is still too small to justify letting him go now but his overall career record indicates he won’t get done here what he couldn’t do elsewhere. Erstad has had enough time on the job and I’m afraid his excellence as a player hasn’t transferred to coaching. He’s got to go. Williams will likely prove to be a very good hire as she rebuilds the women’s hoops program. Miles is, like Riley, a guy who’s shown he has a limited ceiling as a coach and I’m afraid he’s been at NU long enough to show he can’t get the Huskers past a certain threshold. He should not have been retained.

All this uncertainity is weakening the Husker brand. Part of any brand is an identity and in college athletics that identity is often set by the head coach. Right now, it’s hard to get behind any of these coaches because, as an old expression goes, there’s no there-there. Winning sure helps but even when NU wasn’t winning big in basketball and baseball, it had some coaches who stood out. Joe Cipriano brought some verve and passion the way Danny Nee did. Cipriano got sick and had to step down as coach. Nee eventually wore out his welcome but he sure made things interesting. Between them was Moe Iba, whose own dour personality and his team’s deliberate style of play turned off many, but the man could coach. Everyone after Nee has been a let down as a coach and as a brand maker. John Sanders turned NU baseball around but he ended up alienating a lot of people. Dave Van Horn took things to a new level before he was inexplicably fired. Mike Anderson continued the surge until he too was let go after only a couple down seasons.

When NU was dominant in football and nationally competitive in basketball and baseball, tickets were hard to come by. Boy, have times changed. Yes, NU still mostly draws well at home, but not like the old days. A few more losing seasons and it will start to be a sorry sight indeed with all the empty seats.

By contrast, Creighton appears to be in great shape to maintain its success in basketball, both men’s and women’s, as well as soccer, volleyball and softball. CU is among the nation’s kings of college hoops attendance-wise and support for its other programs is very healthy. As NU anxiously faces an uncertain future in terms of success and support and as UNO figures out where it fits into the in-state DI picture, CU boldly adds to its winning ways and is the clear-cut winner in this competition for the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of area sports fans.

Who would have ever thought that?

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

February 8, 2017 1 comment

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Wouldn’t it be weird if the local college hoops team of destiny this year wasn’t the men’s squad as we all assumed through mid-January, but in fact their female counterparts on campus? Maybe, just maybe, we got this narrative wrong. No worry, there’s still time to jump on the bandwagon and rewrite history. Sound crazy? Not so fast. The Bluejay men are not the same since losing Maurice Watson and even though the Jays are still a quaity team and even still control their own fate, each loss from here on out during the remainder of the regular season and on through the Big East tournament will only further hurt their standing in the eyes of the national pollsters and NCAA selection committee. Unless CU can play very strong the rest of the way, its once realistic if not probable shot at a No. 2 seeding will be long gone and the Jays could very well end up in their customary No. 8 or 9 spot. The once 17-0 Jays have come back down to earth and are not 3-4 in their last seven games. More importantly. they are now exceedingly fragile bunch mentally speaking. Meanwhile, the women’s team, which traditionally gets off to slow starts, once again struggled mightly early in the year, opening at 1-3. They entered the 2016-2017 campaign with a deep, talented and experienced roster, but injuries hurt them early on. Since getting healthier and adjusting to the loss of one of their own top players, they have gelled to go 16-3. The team gets steady contributions from nine, even ten players. At 17-6 and 11-2 the Lady Jays sit just outside the Top 25 and are poised to enter the Big East Tournament in great shape and further enhance their chances for a decent NCAA seed that could help them advance to the second weekend of March Madness. Steady at the helm is veteran head coach Jim Flanery, who has established himself as one of the state’s better college hoops coaches, men’s or women’s side, in the last quarter century. He seems to get the most ouf of his players year in and year out.

 

Bluejays Bytes Podcast: Episode 15, Sponsored by Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear

 

 

The great thing about the CU women’s program is that it’s heavily built on Midwest student-athletes. Almost all the players come from within an 8-hour driving radius. There are three Nebraska kids on the roster and the rest come from Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The lone outlier is from Oklahoma. The Jays doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but they do most everything pretty well and their balance and depth is hard for other teams to match even though CU is often overmatched athletically at certain spots. Being fundamentally sound and hard-nosed can make up for a lot of deficiencies, especially against teams that are about even in terms of overall talent. I’m not saying the Hilltop women’s team will go farther than the men’s team, but they do have the advantage of being on a roll that is weeks long in process and showing no signs of slowing down whereas the guys are still in herky jerk mode trying to adapt to the loss of their indisputable leader on and off the court. Even though his career was prematurely cut short and he only played one and a half seasons in a CU uniform, Watson will go down as one of the school’s all-time top talents in the same category as Silas, Portman, Harmon, Apke, Johnson, McKenna, Benjamin, Gallagher, Harstad, Buford, Sears, Walker, Korver, Tolliver, Funk, McDermott. The same is true of Justin Patton, who may be off to the NBA as soon as next year, and Khryi Thomas, who before all is said and done may be the best of the lot. Marcus Foster has the potential to be in this conversation, too, but he needs to be better than he has been since Watson went out or else he will be remembered as no more than a pretty good scorer and super athlete but certainly not a great or even a difference-maker of a player. I mention all this because by contrast the Creighton women don’t have any one player who can be considered a certifiable star compared to all-time program greats like Halligan, Gradoville, Yori, Nenman, Janis. They are all about team and the whole being greater than the parts. Audrey Faber, Marissa Janning, Brianna Rollerson, Sydney Lamberty. Jaylyn Agnew. Laura Works and Baily Norby are the interchangable heart and soul cogs of the team and have had to be since M.C. McGrory was lost for the season after only nine games. Because the Lady Jays lost one of their best players so early compared to the men losing their best player mid-season the women have had the advantage of more time adjusting to her absence and they’ve compensated well enough that they’re in contention for the Big East title and a nice NCAA tourney seeding.

 

Creighton locks down Villanova in the second half to remain unbeaten at D.J. Sokol Arena

 

 

To be fair, the women losing McGrory was not nearly the blow the men endured when Watson went down, but what the Lady Jays have done since is not only comendable but darn impressive. And coach Jim Flanery deserves much credit for the job he’s done in taking over for school legend Connie Yori and turning out competitive teams year after year with less than eye-popping talent. What he’s done compares favorably with what CU volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth – reigning National Coach of the Year – has done. Bernthal Booth led CU to the Elite Eight this past season and I would love to see Flanery get his hoops program there one of these years. It would be a long shot, for sure, but, hey, it was a longshot for the volleyball team to get there, too. But they did it. Maybe this is the year he makes it happen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the women’s basketball team does it the same season the volleyball team did? Why stop there? How about both the men’s and women’s teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen? Neither program has ever done it. Why not this year? Why not do it when both team

JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

May 14, 2016 3 comments

None of us is perfect. We all have flaws and defects. We all make mistakes. We all carry baggage. Fairly or unfairly, those who enter the public eye risk having their imperfections revealed to the wider world. That is what happened to one of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, John C. Johnson, who along with Clayton Bullard, led Omaha Central to back to back state basketball titles in the early 1970s. Both players got Division I scholarships to play ball: Johnson at Creighton and Bullard at Colorado. John C. had a memorable career for the Creighton Bluejays as a small forward who could play inside and outside equally well. He was a hybrid player who could slide and glide in creating his own shot and maneuver to the basket, where he was very adept at finishing, even against bigger opponents, but he could also mix it up when the going got tough or the situation demanded it. He was good both offensively and defensively and he was a fiine team player who never tried to do more than he was capable of and never played outside the system. He was very popular with fans.His biggest following probably came from the North Omaha African-American community he came out of and essentially never left. He was one of their own. That’s not insignificant either because CU has had a paucity of black players from Omaha over its long history. John C. didn’t make it in the NBA but he got right on with his post-collegiate life and did well away from the game and the fame. Years after John C. graduated CU his younger brother Michael followed him from Central to the Hilltop to play for the Jays and he enjoyed a nice run of his own. But when Michael died it broke something deep inside John C. that triggered a drug addction that he supported by committing a series of petty crimes that landed him in trouble with the law. These were the acts of a desperate man in need of help. He had trouble kicking the drug habit and the criminal activity but that doesn’t make him a bad person, only human. None of this should diminish what John C. did on and off the court as a much beloved student-athlete. He is a good man. He is also human and therefore prone to not always getting things right. The same can be said for all of us. It’s just that most of us don’t have our failings written or broadcast for others to see. John was reluctant to be profiled when I interviewed him and his then-life partner for this story about seven or eight years ago. But he did it. He was forthright and remorseful and resolved. After this story appeared there were more setbacks. It happens. Wherever you are, John, I hope you are well. Your story then and now has something to teach all of us. And thanks for the memories of all that gave and have as one of the best ballers in Nebraska history. No one can take that away.

NOTE: This story is one of dozens I have written for a collection I call: Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. You can find it on my blog, leoadambiga.com. Link to it directly at–

https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-omahas-black-sports-legends/

 

From the Archives: Creighton Basketball and the Big Dance

 

 

 

JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“I got tired of being tired.”

Omaha hoops legend and former Creighton University star John C. Johnson explained why he ended the pattern of drug abuse, theft and fraud that saw him serve jail and prison time before his release last May.

From a sofa in the living room of the north Omaha home he shares with his wife, Angela , who clung to him during a recent interview, he made no excuses for his actions. He tried, however, to explain his fall from grace and the struggle to reclaim his good name.

“Pancho” or “C,” as he’s called, was reluctant to speak out after what he saw as the media dogging his every arrest, sentencing and parole board hearing. The last thing he wanted was to rehash it all. But as one of the best players Omaha’s ever produced, he’s newsworthy.

“I had a lot of great players,” said his coach at Omaha Central High School, Jim Martin, “but I think ‘C’ surpassed them all. You would have to rate him as one of the top five players I’ve seen locally. He’d be right up there with Fred Hare, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Andre Woolridge, Kerry Trotter… He was a man among boys.”

 

John C. Johnson

 

The boys state basketball championship Central won this past weekend was the school’s first in 31 years. The last ones before that were the 1974 and 1975 titles that Johnson led the Eagles to. Those clubs are considered two of the best in Omaha prep history. In the proceeding 30 years Central sent many fine teams down to Lincoln to compete for the state crown, but always came up short — until this year. It’s that kind of legacy that makes Johnson such an icon.

He’s come to terms with the fact he’s fair game.

“Obscurity is real important to me right now,” Johnson said. “I used to get mad about the stuff written about me, but, hey, it was OK when I was getting the good pub, so I guess you gotta take the good with the bad. Yeah, when I was scoring 25 points and grabbing all those rebounds, it’s beautiful. But when I’m in trouble, it’s not so beautiful.”

As a hometown black hero Johnson was a rarity at Creighton. Despite much hoops talent in the inner city, the small Jesuit school’s had few black players from Omaha in its long history.

There was a rough beauty to his fluid game. It was 40 minutes of hell for opponents, who’d wilt under the pressure of his constant movement, quick feet, long reach and scrappy play. He’d disrupt them. Get inside their heads. At 6-foot-3 he’d impose his will on guys with more height and bulk — but not heart.

“John C.’ s heart and desire were tremendous, and as a result he was a real defensive stopper,” said Randy Eccker, a sports marketing executive who played point guard alongside him at Creighton. “He had a long body and very quick athletic ability and was able to do things normally only much taller players do. He played more like he was [6-foot-6]. On offense he was one of the most skilled finishers I ever played with. When he got a little bit of an edge he was tremendous in finishing and making baskets. But the thing I remember most about John C. is his heart. He’d always step up to make the big plays and he always had a gift for bringing everybody together.”

Creighton’s then-head coach, Tom Apke, calls Johnson “a winner” whose “versatility and intangibles” made him “a terrific player and one of the most unique athletes I ever coached. John could break defenses down off the dribble and that complemented our bigger men,” Apke said. “He had an innate ability on defense. He also anticipated well and worked hard. But most of all he was a very determined defender. He had the attitude that he was not going to let his man take him.”

Johnson took pride in taking on the big dudes. “Here I was playing small forward at [6-foot-three] on the major college level and guarding guys [6-foot-8], and holding my own,” he said in his deep, resonant voice.

When team physician and super fan Lee “Doc” Bevilacqua and assistant coach Tom “Broz” Brosnihan challenged him to clean the boards or to shut down opponents’ big guns, he responded.

He could also score, averaging 14.5 points a game in his four-year career (1975-76, 1978-79) at CU. Always maneuvering for position under the bucket, he snatched offensive rebounds for second-chance points. When not getting put-backs, he slashed inside to draw a foul or get a layup and posted-up smaller men like he did back at Central, when he and Clayton Bullard led the Eagles to consecutive Class A state titles.

He modeled his game after Adrian Dantley, a dominant small forward at Notre Dame and in the NBA. “Yeah, A.D., I liked him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the biggest or flashiest player in the world, but he was one of the hardest working players in the league.” The same way A.D. got after it on offense, Johnson ratcheted it up on defense. “I was real feisty,” he said. “When I guarded somebody, hell if he went to the bathroom I was going to follow him and pick him up again at half-court. Even as a freshman at Creighton I was getting all the defensive assignments.”

Unafraid to mix it up, he’d tear into somebody if provoked. Iowa State’s Anthony Parker, a 6-foot-7, high-scoring forward, made the mistake of saying something disparaging about Johnson’s mother in a game.

“When he said something about my mama, that was it,” Johnson said. “I just saw fire and went off on him. Fight’s done, and by halftime I have two or three offensive rebounds and I’m in charge of him. By the end, he’s on the bench with seven points. Afterward, he came in our locker room and I stood up thinking he wanted to settle things. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry. I lost my head. I’m not ever going to say anything about nobody’s mama again. Man, you took me right out of my game.’”

Doing whatever it took — fighting, hustling, hitting a key shot — was Johnson’s way. “That’s just how I approached the game,” he said. He faced some big-time competition, too. He shadowed future NBA all-stars Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, a dynamo with West Texas State College; Mark Aguirre, an All-American with DePaul; and Andrew Toney, a scoring machine with Southwest Louisiana State. A longtime mentor of Johnson’s, Sam Crawford said, “And he was right there with them, too.”

He even had a hand in slowing down Larry Bird. Johnson and company held Larry Legend to seven points below his collegiate career scoring average in five games against Indiana State. The Jays won all three of the schools’ ’77-78 contests, the last (54-52) giving them the Missouri Valley Conference title. But ISU took both meetings in ’78-79, the season Bird led his team to the NCAA finals versus Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.

When “C” didn’t get the playing time he felt he deserved in a late season game his freshman year, Apke got an earful from Johnson’s father and from Don Benning, Central’s then-athletic director and a black sports legend himself. If the community felt one of their own got the shaft, they let the school know about it.

Expectations were high for Johnson — one of two players off those Central title teams, along with Clayton Bullard, to go Division I. His play at Creighton largely met people’s high standards. Even after his NBA stint with the Denver Nuggets, who drafted him in the 7th round, fizzled, he was soon a fixture again here as a Boys and Girls Club staffer and juvenile probation officer. That’s what made his fall shocking.

Friends and family had vouched for him. The late Dan Offenberger, former CU athletic director, said then: “He’s a quality guy who overcame lots of obstacles and got his degree. He’s one of the shining examples of what a young man can accomplish by using athletics to get an education and go on in his work.”

What sent Johnson off the deep end, he said, was the 1988 death of his baby brother and best friend, Michael, who followed him to Creighton to play ball. After being stricken with aplastic anemia, Michael received a bone marrow transplant from “C.” There was high hope for a full recovery, but when Michael’s liver was punctured during a biopsy, he bled to death.

“When he didn’t make it, I kind of took it personally,” Johnson said. “It was a really hard period for our family. It really hurt me. I still have problems with it to this day. That’s when things started happening and spinning out of control.”

He used weed and alcohol and, as with so many addicts, these gateway drugs got him hooked on more serious stuff. He doesn’t care to elaborate. Arrested after his first stealing binge, Johnson waived his right to a trial and admitted his offenses. He pleaded no contest and offered restitution to his victims.

His first arrests came in 1992 for a string of car break-ins and forgeries to support his drug habit. He was originally arrested for theft, violation of a financial transaction device, two counts of theft by receiving stolen propperty and two counts of criminal mischief. His crimes typically involved a woman accomplice with a fake I.D. Using stolen checks and credit cards, they would write a check to the fake name and cash it soon thereafter. He faced misdemanor and felony charges in Harrison County Court in Iowa and misdemeanor charges in Douglas County. He was convicted and by March 2003 he’d served about eight years behind bars.

He was released and arrested again. In March 2003 he was denied parole for failing to complete an intensive drug treatment program. Johnson argued, unsuccessfully, that his not completing the program was the result of an official oversight that failed to place his name on a waiting list, resulting in him never being notified that he could start the program.

Ironically, a member of the Nebraska Board of Parole who heard Johnson’s appeal is another former Omaha basketball legend — Bob Boozer, a star at Technical High School, an All-American at Kansas State and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal winning Dream Team and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks NBA title team. Where Johnson’s life got derailed and reputation sullied, Boozer’s never had scandal tarnish his name.

After getting out on in the fall of 2003, Johnson was arrested again for similar crimes as before. The arrest came soon after he and other CU basketball greats were honored at the Bluejays’ dedication of the Qwest Center Omaha. He only completed his last stretch in May 2005. His total time served was about 10 years.

He ended up back inside more than once, he said, because “I wasn’t ready to quit.” Now he just wants to put his public mistakes behind him.

What Johnson calls “the Creighton family” has stood by him. When he joined other program greats at the Jays’ Nov. 22, 2003 dedication of the Qwest Center, the warm ovation he received moved him. He’s a regular again at the school’s old hilltop gym, where he and his buds play pickup games versus 25-year-old son Keenan and crew. He feels welcome there. For the record, he said, the old guys regularly “whup” the kids.

“It feels good to be part of the Creighton family again. They’re so happy for me. It’s kind of made me feel wanted again,” he said.

Sam Crawford, a former Creighton administrator and an active member of the CU family, said, “I don’t think we’ll ever give up on John C., because he gave so much of himself while he was there. If there’s any regret, it’s that we didn’t see it [drug abuse] coming.” Crawford was part of a contingent that helped recruit Johnson to CU, which wanted “C” so bad they sent one of the school’s all-time greats, Paul Silas, to his family’s house to help persuade him to come.

Angela, whom “C” married in 2004, convinced him to share his story. “I told him, ‘You really need to preserve the Johnson legacy — through the great times, your brief moment of insanity and then your regaining who you are and your whole person,’” she said. Like anyone who’s been down a hard road, Johnson’s been changed by the journey. Gone is what’s he calls the “attitude of indifference” that kept him hooked on junk and enabled the crime sprees that supported his habit. “I’ve got a new perspective,” he said. “My decision-making is different. It’s been almost six years since I’ve used. I’m in a different relationship.

 

 

 

Having a good time used to mean getting high. Not anymore. Life behind “the razor wire” finally scared him straight. ”They made me a believer. The penal system made me a believer that every time I break the law the chances of my getting incarcerated get greater and greater. All this time I’ve done, I can’t recoup. It’s lost time. Sitting in there, you miss events. Like my sister had a retirement party I couldn’t go to. My mother’s getting up in age, and I was scared there would be a death in the family and I’d have to come to the funeral in handcuffs and shackles. My son’s just become a father and I wouldn’t wanted to have missed that. Missing stuff like that scared the hell out of me.”

Johnson’s rep is everything. He wants it known what he did was out of character. That part of his past does not define him. “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m still a good person. You’ll find very few people that have anything bad to say about me personally,” he said. “You’ll mostly find sympathy, which I hate.” But he knows some perceive him negatively. “I don’t know if I’m getting that licked yet. If I don’t, it’s OK. I can’t do anything about that.”

He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is visibly upset when he talks about doing time with the likes of rapists and child molesters. “I own up to what I did,” he said. “I deserved to go to prison. I was out of control. But as much trouble as I’ve been in, I’ve never been violent. I never touched violence. The only fights I’ve had have been on the basketball court, in the heat of battle.”

He filled jobs in recent years via the correction system’s work release program. Shortly before regaining his freedom in May, he faced the hard reality any ex-con does of finding long-term work with a felony conviction haunting him. When he’d get to the part of an application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” — he’d check, yes. Where it said, “Please explain,” he’d write in the box, “Will explain in the interview.” Only he rarely got the chance to tell his story.

Then his luck changed. Drake Williams Steel Company of Omaha saw the man and not the record and hired him to work the night shift on its production line. “I really appreciate them giving me an opportunity, because they didn’t have to. A lot of places wouldn’t. And to be perfectly honest, I understand that. This company is employee-oriented, and they like me. They’re letting me learn things.”

He isn’t used to the blue-collar grind. “All my jobs have been sitting behind a desk, pretty much. Now I’m doing manual labor, and it’s hard work. I’m scratched up. I work on a hydro saw. I weld. I operate an overhead crane that moves 3,000-pound steel beams. I’m a machine operator, a drill operator…”

The hard work has brought Johnson full circle with the legacy of his late father, Jesse Johnson, an Okie and ex-Golden Gloves boxer who migrated north to work the packing houses. “My father was a hard working man,” he said. “He worked two full-time jobs to support us. We didn’t have everything but we had what we needed. I’ve been around elite athletes, but my father, he was the strongest man I’ve ever known, physically, emotionally and mentally. He didn’t get past the 8th grade, but he was very well read, very smart.”

His pops was stern but loving. Johnson also has a knack with young people — he’s on good terms with his children from his first marriage, Keenan and Jessica — and aspires one day to work again with “kids on the edge.”

“I shine around kids,” he said. “I can talk to them at their level. I listen. There’s very few things a kid can talk about that I wouldn’t be able to relate to. I just hope I didn’t burn too many bridges. I would hate to think my life would end without ever being able to work with kids again. That’s one of my biggest fears. I really liked the Boys Club and the probation work I did, and I really miss that.”

He still has a way with kids. Johnson and a teammate from those ’74 and ’75 Central High state title teams spoke to the ‘05-’06 Central squad before the title game tipped off last Saturday. “C” told the kids that the press clippings from those championship years were getting awfully yellow in the school trophy case and that it was about time Central won itself a new title and a fresh set of clippings. He let them know that school and inner city pride were on the line.

He’s put out feelers with youth service agencies, hoping someone gives him a chance to . For now though he’s a steel worker who keeps a low profile. He loves talking sports with the guys at the barbershop and cafe. He works out. He plays hoops. Away from prying eyes, he visits Michael’s grave, telling him he’s sorry for what happened and swearing he won’t go back to the life that led to the pen. Meanwhile, those dearest to Johnson watch and wait. They pray he can resist the old temptations.

Crawford, whom Johnson calls “godfather,” has known him 35 years. He’s one of the lifelines “C” uses when things get hairy. “I know pretty much where he is at all times. I’m always reaching out for him … because I know it is not easy what he’s trying to do. He dug that hole himself and he knows he’s got to do what’s necessary. He’s got to show that he’s capable of changing and putting his life back together. He’s got to find the confidence and the courage and the faith to make the right choices. It’s going to take his friends and family to encourage him and provide whatever support they possibly can. But he’s a good man and he has a big heart.”

Johnson is adamant his using days are over and secure that his close family and tight friends have his back. “Today, my friends and I can just sit around and have a good time, talking and laughing, and it doesn’t have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. There used to be a time for me you wouldn’t think that would be possible. I still see people in that lifestyle and I just pray for them.”

Besides, he said, “I’m tired of being tired.”

 

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

October 24, 2014 2 comments

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.

 

Leah McNary

 

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.

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