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Boxing coach Jose Campos molds young men

February 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Boxing coach Jose Campos molds young men

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a December 2017 issue of El Perico

Jose Campos grew up a fight fan and competed as an amateur. For years now, he’s applied his ring savvy teaching the Sweet Science at Jackson’s Boxing Club, 2562 Leavenworth Street, where he’s head coach.

He’s worked with kids-adults, amateurs-pros, journeymen-champions. When he looks at Ralston High School senior Juan Vazquez, he sees world-class potential.

“I’ve only had four or five kids that I said, ‘For sure, he’s going to be something,’ and Juan is one of them. If he sticks with it, he’s going to be a world champion for sure.”

Vazquez, 17, won the National Junior Olympics title at 152 pounds earlier this year in West Virginia. He made it to the semifinals of a regional qualifier in Tennessee in October, Campos sees similarities between four-time world pro world titilist Terence Crawford of Omaha and Vazquez at the same age.

“I coached with Terence’s coach, Esau Dieguez, for four years. I see a lot of things Juan does the same way Terence used to do it. It’s exciting to see that in somebody I’m coaching now.”

The first week in December, Vazquez lost in the semis at USA Boxing’s National Championships in Salt Lake City, Utah. Despite finishing in third place. he’s still been invited to train with the U.S. Olympic team in Colorado Springs next May. He’s next man up for international competitions should either of the two fighters ahead of him not be able to travel.

Campos has another promising fighter in his own son, 142-pounder Marco Campos, who, like Vazquez, is nationally ranked. Marco competed in Salt Lake and will join Vazquez in training with the Olympic team.

“Being part of the USA team is everything,” Jose Campos said. “Promoters are paying attention to them. Once they turn 18, there are contracts waiting for them.”

Win or lose, fighting for one’s club or country or for money, the coach wants his boxers prepared for life.

“I tell all my kids they have to go to school, they have to get a degree. Boxing, one day you’re on top, the next day something happens to you. They need to have something to fall back on.”

Besides being a student of the ring, where he’s progressed from slacker to prospect, Vazquez also applies himself at school. Campos said his prodigy is mature for his age.

“A lot of people think he’s older than what he really is.”

Campos describes the dramatic transformation his star pupil made.

“Usually, kids come because they want to do it and they want to be part of this. Usually, parents are like, ‘If my kid doesn’t want to do this, I’m not going to make him.’ Well, with Juan, his mom brought him to me because he was so overweight and he didn’t do anything after school. He just sat down at home playing video games. His mom wanted him to do something. It didn’t come from him.”

All it took to get Vazquez motivated was his coach challenging him.

“If you’re going to come train with us, you’re going to train,” Campos said. “We don’t do things half way. I don’t let the kids compete unless they’re prepared. It’s a way of life, it’s hard, it’s not for everyone.”

Even when pushed to his limits, “Juan kept coming back” and improving, Campos said. “Some guys advance faster than others and Juan picked things up quickly.”

After shedding pounds and learning the ropes, Vazquez decisively won his first few fights. He was hooked.

“He started to work really hard,” said Campos, who also coaches at Premier Combat Center.

Vazquez’s early bouts were in upper weight divisions. As he moved up in competition, he didn’t have the strength to dominate anymore. He still finished as runner-up at 165 pounds in a national tourney. “He was outsmarting them in there,” Campos said, “but at the end of the day they were too big for him. We decided to go down to 152 and that’s where we’re going to stay. That’s where his body feels more comfortable and he’s at his strongest.”

Should Vazquez eventually turn pro, he’ll fight lighter yet, perhaps at 135-pounds.

So far, Vazquez’s work ethic has not wavered. If it does, Campos will call him on it.

“If you don’t train hard, you’re going to get hurt. One fight can change the rest of your life.”

Campos knows Vaquez dreams of going pro but he also realizes “that could change,” adding, “It’s hard to predict. Things happen in life. You never know what’s going to happen with these kids. I’ve had other Juans in my gym before with his talent. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, they didn’t continue in boxing.”

Like his gym-mates, Vazquez usually depends on donations and scholarships to travel to tournaments. “He doesn’t have the money to do these things,” Campos said. “His mom’s a single mom.” USA Boxing will pay for Vazquez’s and Marco’s Olympic training.

For Campos, it’s not about the titles won but the growth young people make at Jackson’s Boxing Club.

“It inspires me watching these kids develop. It makes me happy. They validate me in what we’re doing. It’s not just me. Coach Christian Trinidad works with the kids, too. Christian used to box for me. He was an outstanding fighter. For medical reasons, he had to

stop.”

Trinidad, he said, is “the other half of the coaching we do with Juan – we have brought Juan up together.”

Similarly, Campos said his son and Vazquez “have come up together and make each other better.”

Those two are the most high-profile competitors, but they’re not the only ones making noise at Jackson’s.

“We have a really good crop of fighters who are fighting at a very high level. Five are nationally ranked. I’m not sure if there’s another local gym that can say that.”

Visit jacksonsboxingclub.com.

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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/

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

January 21, 2018 1 comment

The State of VolleyballHow Nebraska Became the Epicenter of American Volleyball

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine


For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success.

Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball (according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).

“It’s the main or premier sport for women right now,” Doane University coach Gwen Egbert says.

Omaha has become a volleyball showcase. The city hosted NCAA Division I Finals in 2006, 2008, and 2015, with the Cornhuskers competing on all three occasions (winning the national title in 2006 and 2015).

Packed crowds at the CenturyLink Center will once again welcome the nation’s top teams when Omaha hosts the championships in 2020. Meanwhile, Creighton University is emerging as another major volleyball powerhouse, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha has made strides in the Mavericks’ first two years of full Division I eligibility since joining the Summit Conference.

In the 2017 NCAA tournament, Creighton advanced to the second round (but fell to Michigan State). As this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, the Cornhuskers headed to regionals in hopeful pursuit of a fifth national championship.

“The fact Nebraska has done and drawn so well, and that kids are seeing the sport at a high level at a young age, gets people excited to play,” says Husker legend Karen Dahlgren Schonewise, who coaches for Nebraska Elite club volleyball and Duchesne Academy in Omaha.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln first reached a national title game with Schonewise in 1986. The dominant defensive player set Nebraska’s career record for solo blocks (132)—a record that still stands—before going on to play professionally. (The Cornhuskers didn’t win the national championship until 1995.)

“I think the amount of kids that play in Nebraska is No. 1, per capita, in the country. I think the level of play is far higher than many states in the country,” says Omaha Skutt Catholic coach Renee Saunders, whose star freshman, 6-foot-3 Lindsay Krause, is a UNL verbal commit.

Volleyball’s attraction starts with plentiful scholarships, top-flight coaching, TV coverage, and professional playing opportunities.

Few states match the fan support found here.

“We have probably the most educated fans in the nation,” Saunders says. “They’re a great fan base. They know how to support their teams, and they’re very embracing of volleyball in general.”

The lack of physical contact appeals to some girls. The frequent team huddles after rallies draw others.

Omaha Northwest High School coach Shannon Walker says “the camaraderie” is huge. You really have to work together as a unit, communicate, and be six people moving within a tiny space.”

Volleyball’s hold is rural and urban in a state that has produced All-Americans, national champions, and Olympians.

The Husker program has been elite since the 1980s. Its architect, former UNL coach Terry Pettit, planted the seeds that grew this second-to-none volleyball culture.

“He really spearheaded a grassroots effort to build the sport,” says Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “Besides winning, he also worked diligently to train our high school coaches.”

“It’s important to realize this goes back many years,” former Husker (2009-2012) Gina Mancuso says, “and I think a lot of credit goes to Terry Pettit. He created such an awesome program with high standards and expectations.”

Pettit products like Gwen Egbert have carried those winning ways to coaching successful club and high school programs and working area camps. Egbert built a dynasty at Papillion-LaVista South before going to Doane. Several Papio South players have excelled as Huskers (the Rolzen twins, Kelly Hunter, etc.).

 

Their paths inspired future Husker Lindsay Krause.

“Seeing the success is a big motivation to want to play,” Krause says. “Just watching all the success everyone has in this state makes you feel like it’s all the more possible for you to be able to do that.”

Many top former players go on to coach here, and most remain even after they achieve great success.

Walker says quality coaches don’t leave because “it’s the hotbed of volleyball—they’re staying here and growing home talent now.”

“It’s us colleges that reap the benefits,” Bernthal Booth says.

Pettit says it’s a matter of “success breeds success.”

Schonewise agrees, saying, “Once you see success, others want to try it and do it and more programs become successful.”

“The standard is high and people want to be at that high level. They don’t want to be mediocre,” UNO coach Rose Shires says.

Wayne State, Kearney, Hastings, and Bellevue all boast top small college programs. In 2017, Doane was the first Nebraska National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program to record 1,000 wins.

“We’ve got great Division I, Division II, NAIA, and junior college volleyball programs,” says Bernthal Booth, who took the Creighton job in part due to the area’s rich talent base. She feels CU’s breakout success coincided with the 2008 opening of D.J. Sokol Arena, which she considers among the nation’s best volleyball facilities.

“All these colleges in Nebraska are in the top 25 in their respective divisions,” Saunders says. “It’s crazy how high the level of play has gone, and I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

“It’s really built a great fan base of support,” Mancuso says, “and I think the reason the state produces a lot of great volleyball players is the fact we have great high school coaches, great college programs, and great club programs.”

Club programs are talent pipelines. There are far more today than even a decade ago. Their explosion has meant youth getting involved at younger ages and training/playing year-round. Nebraska Elite is building a new facility to accommodate all the action.

“The athleticism found in the state has always been pretty high, but the level of play has definitely improved. The kids playing today are more skilled. The game is faster,” Egbert says. “When I started out, you’d maybe have one or two really good players, and now you could have a whole team of really good players.”

“You have your pick of dozens of clubs, and a lot of those clubs compete at the USA national qualifiers and get their players that exposure,” says Shannon Walker, the Northwest High School coach who is also the director of the Omaha Starlings volleyball club.

“Volleyball is such a joy to be a part of in this state,” Mancuso says.

“It’s cool to be a part of everything going on in Nebraska and watching it grow and develop,” Skutt freshman phenom Krause says.

“My goal is to make Lindsay ready to play top-level Division I volleyball by the time she graduates here,” Saunders says. “She already has the physicality, the competitive edge, the smarts. Now it’s just getting her to play to her full potential, which she hasn’t had to yet because she’s always been bigger than everybody. She’s definitely not shy of challenges. I feel like every time I give her a challenge, she steps up and delivers.”

Krause values that Saunders “gives great feedback on things I have to fix.”

Native Nebraskans dot the rosters of in-state and out-of-state programs. Along with Krause, Elkhorn South freshman Rylee Gray—who holds scholarship offers from Nebraska and Creighton—may emerge as another next big name from the Omaha metro. But they are both still a few years from the collegiate level.

UNO’s Shires says “impassioned” coaches like Saunders are why volleyball is rooted and embraced here. Shires came to Omaha from Texas to join the dominant program Janice Kruger built for the Mavericks at the Division II level. Kruger, now head coach at the University of Maryland, was previously captain of the Cornhuskers’ team (1977).

Further enhancing the volleyball culture, Shires says, is having former Olympian Jordan Larson and current pro Gina Mancuso come back and work with local players. Mancuso’s pro career has taken her around the world. She wants the players she works with at UNO, where she’s an assistant, to “see where it can take them.”

As volleyball has taken off, it’s grown more diverse. Most clubs are suburban-based and priced beyond the means of many inner-city families. The Omaha Starlings provide an alternative option. “Our fees are significantly lower than everybody else’s,” says Walker, the club’s director and Northwestern’s coach. “Anybody that can’t afford to pay, we scholarship.”

Broadening volleyball’s reach, she says, “is so necessary. As a result, we do have a pretty diverse group of kids. I’ve had so many really talented athletes and great kids who would have never been able to afford other clubs. We’re trying to even the scale and offer that same experience to kids who have the interest and the ability but just can’t afford it.”

“It’s very exciting to see diversity in the sport—it’s been a long time coming,” Schonewise says.

Forty-five Starlings have earned scholarships, some to historically black colleges and universities. Star grad Samara West (Omaha North) ended up at Iowa State.

Starlings have figured prominently in Omaha Northwest’s rise from also-ran to contender. Eight of nine varsity players in 2017 played for the club.

Walker knew volleyball had big potential, yet it’s exceeded her expectations. She says while competition is fierce among Nebraska coaches and players, they share a love that finds them, when not competing against each other, cheering on their fellows in this ever-growing volleyball family/community.

“It’s awesome,” Walker says. “But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to reaching our peak yet.”

 

From couch potato to champion pugilist

November 22, 2017 Leave a comment

World champion Terence Crawford has put Omaha on the boxing map for the first time in decades and fellow hometown fighters are eager to follow in his footsteps. After winning several amateur titles, Steven Nelson is a rising talent as a light heavyweight professional. National Junior Olympics 152-pound champ Juan Vazquez is eying a spot on the USA boxing team and dreams of fighting in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Vazquez trains at Jackson’s Boxing Club, where his coaches Jose Campos and Christian Trinidad feel they have a special talent who could just be the next big name in boxing from Omaha. The Ralston High senior is still only 17 and he’s come incredibly far in a short time – from couch potato to champion pugilist. Read my El Perico story about Juan Vazquez here.

 

 

From couch potato to champion pugilist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in a November 2017 issue of El Perico newspaper

No one expected nationally ranked amateur fighter Juan Vazquez, 17, to be the poster boy for how boxing can transform your life. Four years ago, the now Ralston High senior was an obese couch potato who preferred video games over physical activity.

Even after his mother practically dragged him to Jackson’s Boxing Club in south downtown, where his older brother trained, he cut up rather than worked out. Head coach Jose Campos expected Vazquez to quit when he pushed him hard in training. But Vazquez took everything Campos and assistant coach Christian Trinidad dished out and came back for more. He rapidly shed pounds and learned ring skills. Mere months after getting serious, he fought bouts – and won.

“I tend to pick things up quickly,” Vazquez said.

Campos knew he had someone special when Vazquez kept beating or nearly beating more experienced foes.

“It inspired him to get better because he knew that if he could compete with these high level kids with his little experience then he was going to be something, and he did. He started to work really hard.”

Vazquez won Silver Gloves regionals and twice won Ringside youth world championships. Then he became a national Junior Olympic champion at 152 pounds in West Virginia. He’s now a USA team hopeful eyeing the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

No one’s more surprised than Vazquez himself.

“I never thought I would compete like this nationally, but as the years went by I’ve shown I’m really good at it. What I love most about the sport is that it keeps me in shape and it makes me a better person. Every day I try my hardest in everything I do. It just gets me through my days when I’m stressed.

“It’s always there for me. It’s made me into the person I am today. I’m doing good at school. I’m healthy, I’m eating right. It teaches you things you can use in real life. It’s taught me a lot about discipline  When I train, I don’t cheat myself. If I don’t train hard, that’s going to end up turning into failure.”

Campos confirmed Vazquez is a quick study.

“He picks things up more and faster than other kids. When Juan goes into a fight, it takes him a round or half a round to feel out the other kid. He’s looking for mistakes they’re making, for flaws in their game, and once he sees it, he works off that.”

Reading opponent tendencies shows a cerebral side.

“I see everything,” Vazquez said. “I’m jabbing, feeling how hard they hit, what their favorite punch is, what are they throwing often, and how can I counter all that.”

Campos said Vazquez can adapt thanks to unusual versatility.

“If Juan notices he needs to go forward, he’s really good at going forward. If he notices he needs to box and move around, he’s really good with his footwork. If he needs to switch from right-handed to left-handed, he will do that, and be just as good, which is pretty impressive. You only see that from high level professional fighters.”

This complete package compels Campos to sing his prodigy’s praises.

“He’s smart, he’s calm and he’s super tough – physically and mentally. There is no quit in him. It’s rare. He’s one of those kids where if he sticks with it, he’s going to be a world champion for sure.”

Vazquez, who’s trained with world champion Terrence Crawford of Omaha, said, “I want to make this my career. I honestly want to pursue it for the rest of my life,

I’m willing to take it all the way – as far as I can.”

His family supports him right down the line.

“They tell me to pursue it. When they see me fighting, they see I have the potential to be one of the greatest in the sport. I see it, too. They see that boxing has really helped me with my life – with just everything.”

 

Even though he has his mom to thank for introducing him to the gym, he’s taken it far beyond her imagination.

“She never thought it’d be like this.”

She’s happy for his success but can’t bring herself to watch him fight,

“She’s scared to see me getting hit. She never wants me getting hurt. She’s really protective over me.”

Only his pride was hurt when he lost in the semi-finals of

a national tournament in Tennessee.

“I thought it was a really close fight, but you can’t really be mad at anybody but yourself. You just have to go back to the gym and start training again.”

Campos feels too much time off hurt his boxer.

“He didn’t get to fight in between the Junior Olympics (in July) and this tournament (in October) because we couldn’t find him any opponents, so he got rusty.

“This kid needs to be active.”

Vazquez is in training now for a December tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah that will decide the USA boxing team for upcoming international competitions.

“That’s where I really need to bring it because that’s the one that’s going to determine who’s going to take that spot,” Vazquez said.

With a fighter who’s come so far, so fast, it’s no wonder Campos uses Vazquez as an example to others.

“I love that he does it,” Vazquez said. “It shows kids there is a chance for you to be slimmer and to up your lifestyle. It’s not all about eating junk food and playing games. You have to work out to keep your body in shape to live a healthier and better life.”

The nonprofit Jackson’s Boxing Club, 2562 Leavenworth St., holds fundraisers and accepts donations to send kids like Juan to competitions.

For details, visit jacksonsboxingclub.com.

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

May 21, 2017 2 comments

Terence Crawford after beating Thomas Dulorme of Puerto Rico in April 2015. Crawford is 30-0 with 21 knockouts. CreditTom Pennington/Getty Images
 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Terence Crawford defeats Felix Diaz to retain his 140-pound world championship and to remain unbeaten.

That’s all well and good, but as Crawford is discovering, life outside the ring comes with consequences, too, and the streets that forged him are still a part of him and can, if he’s not careful, bring him down. His life, like all of ours, is a complicated business. The fact he’s come so far so fast from where he started and where he still has roots is causing him to be in situations that in some cases he’s ill-prepared to deal with. He’s straddlng vasty differennt worlds and trying to keep his equilibrium and integrity in them. It’s a work in progress playing out on a national and international stage. The head-strong Crawford would be well-served to listen to the advice of the wise people who’ve come forward to counsel him. Yes, he needs to be his own man, but he also needs to acknowledge when he’s out of his depth. No one any longer questions his boxing genius. Or his heart for his community and for his family and friends. As for the rest of it, only time will tell.

He is a warrior or soldier, it’s true, and much of that combative spirit is admirable, but it also has its costs. Sometimes, it’s the exact thing you don’t need or want to be. Sometimes, the opposite is called for. Sometimes, it’s more courageous and certainly smarter to back off or to deliberate or to live to fight another day, another time, aother round. It’s a quality he shows in the ring. He needs to show that same quality outside the ring, too.

For three perspectives on the forces that have shaped him and that make him the endlessly complex individual he is, you might want to check these out–
https://www.nytimes.com/…/terence-crawford-world-champion-profile.html

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/terence-crawford/‎

Crawford, right, with a group of boys in Rwanda. CreditPipeline Worldwide

Crawford won a unanimous decision over the Ukrainian Viktor Postol last summer in a title unification bout in Las Vegas. CreditChase Stevens/Associated Press

Crawford, right, at a national Golden Gloves tournament in his hometown, Omaha, in 2006.CreditNati Harnik/Associated Press

A mentor said of Crawford: “He’s a person who people will love if he’ll only allow them to.”CreditTom Pennington/Getty Images

New approach, same expectation for South soccer

April 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Omaha South High boys soccer is good again. No news there. By now, it’s become a tradition. In a you-can’t-take-anything-for-granted world, few things have become more dependable in Omaha high school sports than this program competing for district and state honors. It’s not exactly a given but at this point the team is expected to win every time out no matter who they play, no matter how few returning starters there on the roster, no matter who’s injured. The 2017 team lacks experience and suffered some key injuries before the season even began and yet the expectations both inside and outside the program remain high. As in get-to-the-state-tournament and win- it-all high. South did it last year and a couple years before tha, toot. The Packers have been in the hunt for the title several other years. Coach Joe Maass has a full-blown dynasty on his hands and he’s trying to learn from the past to help keep his latest defending champion squad hungry and peaking at the right time. Here’s an El Perico story I wrote in late March laying out how Coach Maass sees his team shaping up.

 

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New approach, same expectation for South soccer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Lessons learned when Omaha South boys soccer won it all in 2013 inform the way coach Joe Maass does things now following last year’s second state title. He not only draws on that earlier experience but on a recent family challenge and the expertise of fellow coaches.

Heavy graduation losses from last year’s championship team have him invoking “a Bill Belichick approach.” he said, referring to the New England Patriots head coach. “The Patriots don’t always have the best players yet he’ll grab somebody’s second-team player or a late round draft pick and make them a fit for his system, We’ve focused a lot more on working hard in practice then maybe we did the year after we won it the first time.”

Hard work rubs off the youth on so many new faces.

“We feel like our talent level could drop off because we’re younger,” Maass said. “We only have four or five seniors, so we’ve had to just kind of bring a blue-collar mentality to it.”

He said his Packers reflect South Omaha’s personality.

“Blue-collar tough. That’s South Omaha to me. We’re not the biggest, but we’ll bang with you if you want.”

Attitude’s everything for this perennial power everyone wants to take down.

“These guys have to remember they play for South. Every team we play approaches it like the World Cup, so we can’t let up or coast. The fact we’re defending state champions just adds to it. The first time we won it we took it serious but I didn’t realize how serious it had to be. This time it’s been more of a business-like approach.”

Twin brothers Issac and Israel Cruz, along with Emilio Margarito, are top returnees who model high expectations.

“Those guys get it. The trick is getting some of the younger guys to. Like we’re starting a freshman and a sophomore. But a lot of new players are buying into the culture those older guys set. It’s good to see.”

Regarding the Cruz boys, he said, “They’ve been starting since their freshman year. They’ve always been leaders. Everyone respects them. It’s just how it is.

They set the standard.”

“Same thing for Emilio Margarito. He’s a team captain now.”

Maass believes in open competition at practice. Nobody’s spot is guaranteed.

“If they don’t work hard, they’ll be called out. Every day you’re competing.”

This year even more so because of injuries.

“There’s been a lot of attrition – more than we’ve had in years. One of the things we talk about is next man up.”

That mantra’s extended from preseason tryouts for open spots to now and it’s already paid dividends.

With returning goalkeeper Adrian Feliz out due to injury, his spot came down to two players until one quit. That gave the job to Jeramiah Gonzales, whose brilliant opening weekend performance included a shutout of Burke in his first career start, followed by five stops of penalty kicks in a shootout against South Sioux City.

“Extraordinary,” is how Maass described what Gonzales did. “I’ll probably never see it in my lifetime again.”

He said when Felix comes back, he won’t automatically step into the starter role. He’ll have to earn it.

“They will be competing every day.”

 

Image result for joe maass omaha south high

Joe Maass

 

 

Since Maass adopted next-man-up as a team philosophy, he said, “it feels like things are working better – there’s a lot more team harmony.” He added, “Back in the day, with some hot shot kids who wanted to do things their way it caused problems. We might have won, but it wasn’t fun.”

Forward Jose Hernandez is another player who, Maass said, “gets it.” “He was promoted from the sophomore team to the varsity for the Tennessee (Smoky Mountain) tournament last year and he scored the goal that helped us beat one team. He scored the first goal at state last year coming off the bench. He knows this is what you have to do. It’s not how many minutes you get, it’s what you do with them.”

Now in his 18th year, Maass has learned patience.

“We tell our kids, ‘Don’t worry about the first few games, let’s worry about games 17-18.’ As long as we’re clicking at the end, it doesn’t even matter what we’re doing right now. We just have to figure each other out and get better every day.”

His own priorities got a reality check last year when his wife Ann, an ESL instructor at South, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemo treatments and a double mastectomy later, the cancer’s in remission.

“When it first hits you, your whole life just kind of spins.”

During Ann’s illness he took a more active hand in their two young children’s lives and extracurricular activities.

“I even contemplated stepping down as coach to be a better family man but at the end of the day we managed it, and here I am. I want to win games and championships but helping younger kids is probably more important after this.”

Having taken South soccer from the bottom to the top, he’s focused on maintaing excellence.

“I just want to keep it moving along.”

He readily acknowledges assistant coaches have helped South become a dynasty.

“I’m not afraid to go out and find someone who challenges me as a coach and who on top of that can run drills and do things at a higher level than myself.

“We evolve with every coach we bring in.”

By May, South aims to win its district, return to state and compete for another title. Packer coaches, players and fans expect it. But, Maass said, “the key is to get there.”

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

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

March 26, 2017 Leave a comment

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Let’s start with the hard truth that the University of Nebraska never had any business being a major college football power in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, NU had every right to ascend to that lofty position and certainly did what it takes to deserve the riches that came with it. But my point is NU was never really meant to be there and therefore fundamentally was always out of its class or at least out of place even when it reigned supreme in the gridiron wars.

The fact is it happened though. Call it fate or fluke, it was an unlikely, unexpected occurrence whose long duration made it even more improbable.

In pop culture, self-identification terms, it was both the best thing that ever happened to the state of Nebraska and the worst thing. The best because it gave Nebraskans a mutual statewide rooting interest and point of pride. The worst because it was all an illusion doomed to run its course. Furthermore, it set Nebraskans up for visions of grandeur that are sadly misplaced, especially when it comes to football, because the deck is stacked against us. Far better that we aspire to be the best in something else, say wind energy or the arts or agriculture or education, that we can truly hold our own in and that reaps some tangible, enduring benefit, then something as inconsequential, tangential and elusive as football.

Husker football became a vehicle for the aspirational hopes of Nebraskans but given where things are today with the program those aspirations read more like pipe-dreams.

The critical thing to remember is that it was only because an unrepeatable confluence of things came together at just the right time that the NU football dynasty occurred in the first place. NU’s rise from obscurity to prominence took place in a bubble when peer school programs were in a down cycle and before that bubble could be burst enough foundation was laid to give the Huskers an inside track at gridiron glory.

The dynasty only lasted as long as it did because the people responsible for it stayed put and the dynamics of college football remained more or less stable during that period, thus prolonging what should have been a short rise to prominence and postponing the rude awakening that brought NU football back down to earth,.

Please don’t point to the program as the reason for that remarkable run of success the Huskers enjoyed from 1962 through 2001. It was people who made it happen. The program was the people. Once the people responsible for the success left, the results were very different. I mean, there’s never stopped being a program. It’s the people running the program who make all the difference, not the facilities or traditions.

Yes, I know there was a time when NU was successful in football prior to Devaney. From the start of the last century through the 1930s the Huskers fielded good, not great teams before the death valley years of the 1940s and 1950s ensued. But NU was never a titan the way Notre Dame, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State or other elite programs were back then.

 

The late Jerry List (left) and Red Beran carry Bob Devaney off the field at the 1972 Orange Bowl.

 

Make no mistake about it, Bob Devaney was the architect of the wild success that started in the early 1960s and continued decade after decade. He deserves the lion’s share of credit for the phenomena that elevated NU to the heights of Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama. Without him, it would not have happened. No way, no how. His path had to cross Nebraska’s at that precise moment in time in the early 1960s or else NU would have remained an after-thought football program that only once in a while would catch fire and have a modicum of success. In other words, Nebraska football would have been what it was meant to be – on par with or not quite there with Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado and Wyoming. During NU’s half-century run of excellence the state schools in those states not only envied NU but despised the Big Red because they couldn’t understand why that same magic didn’t happen with their football operations. Among those states, all but Wyoming have larger population bases. Among the Division I schools, all but Wyoming have larger student enrollments. Those realities alone should have put NU at a decided disadvantage and given those schools a leg up where football was concerned.

But Devaney found ways to compensate for the lack of bodies, not to mention for all the other disadvantages facing Nebraska. One of Devaney’s chief strategies for overcoming these things became national recruiting and eventually the recruitment of African-American student-athletes in enough numbers to be a difference-maker on the field.

The continuity of Devaney’s staff was an important factor in sustaining success.

His hand-picked successor Tom Osborne was like the apprentice who learned from the master to effectively carry on the tradition without so much as one bad season. Osborne ramped up the national recruiting efforts and especially made African-American recruits more of a priority. Like his mentor, he maintained a cohesive staff around him. He also made even greater use of walk-ons than Devaney had in that no scholarship limit era. And most importantly he saw the future and embraced an ahead-of-its-time strength and conditioning program that made NU players bigger and stronger, no doubt with some help from steroids, and he eventually adopted the spread option on offense and the 4-3 on defense, emphasizing speed and quickness on both sides of the ball. The option-based, power running and play-action passing game became NU’s niche. It allowed the program to recruit to a style and identity that stood it apart. Now, NU runs a variation of what virtuarlly everybody else does in college football, thus giving it one decided less advantage.

 

Nebraska players carried Coach Tom Osborne off the field after the Huskers defeated Miami in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1995, to claim the national championship. CreditDoug Mills/Associated Press

 

As long as was one or the other – Devaney or Osborne – or both were still around, the success, while not guaranteed, was bound to continue because they drove it and they attracted people to it.

First Devaney died, then Osborne retired and then athletic director Bill Byrnes left  The first two were the pillars of success as head coaches and Devaney as AD. The third was a great support. There were also some supportive NU presidents. Osborne’s curated successor, Frank Solich, and other holdover coaches managed a semblance of the dynasty’s success. And then one by one the pretenders, poor fits, revisionists and outliers got hired and fired.

Ever since Osborne stepped down, NU has been playing a game it cannot win of trying to recapture past success by attempting to replicate it. That’s impossible, of course, because the people and conditions that made that success possible are irrevocably different. Whatever manufactured advantages NU once possessed are now long gone and the many intrinsic disadvantages NU has are not going away because they are, with the exception of coaches and players, immutable and fixed.

Besides Nebraska being situated far from large population centers, the state lacks many of the attributes or come-ons other states possess, including oceans, beaches, mountains, cool urban centers filled with striking skylines and features and a significant African-American and diversity presence on campus. It also lacks a top-shelf basketball program to bask in. And while NU has kept up with the facilities and programs wars the Huskers’ peer institutions now possess everything they have and more.

The dream of NU fans goes something like this: Get the right coach, and then the right players will come, and then the corresponding wins and titles will follow. Trouble is, finding that right coach is easier said than done, especially at a place like Nebraska. The university has shown it’s not willing to shell out the tens of millions necessary to hire a marquee coach. I actually applaud that. I find abhorrent the seven figure annual salaries and ludicrous buy-out guarantees paid to major college coaches. I mean, it’s plain absurd they get paid that kind of money for coaching a game whose intrinsic values of teamwork, discipline, hard work, et cetera can be taught in countless other endeavors at a fraction of the cost and without risk of temporary or permanent injuries. If NU stands pat and doesn’t play the salary wars game, then that leaves the next scenario of offering far less to an up and coming talent who, it’s hoped, proves to be the next Devaney or Osborne. Fat chance of that fantasy becoming reality.

The other wishful thinking is that some benefactor or group of benefactors will pump many millions of dollars, as in hundred of millions of dollars, into the athletic department in short order to help NU buy success in the form of top tier coaches and yet bigger, fancier facilities. There are certainly a number of Nebraskans who could do that if they were so inclined. I personally hope they don’t because those resources could go to far more important things than football.

 

The sellout streak at Memorial Stadium, in Lincoln, Neb., is at 349 games, and counting.CreditSteven Branscombe/Getty Images
 

 

In terms of head coaches, NU hit the jackpot with Devaney. He then handed the keys to a man, in Osborne, who just happened to be the perfect one to follow him, NU has missed on four straight passes since then. I count Mike Riley as a miss even though he’s only two years into his tenure because someone with his long coaching record of mediocrity does not suddenly. magically become a great coach who leads teams to championships just because he’s at a place that used to win championships. What Riley did in the CFL has no bearing on the college game.

Even if Riley does manage more success here than he’s been able to accomplish elsewhere, everything suggests it would be short-lived and not indicative of some enduring return to excellence. That once in a school’s lifetime opportunity came and went for NU, never to return in my opinion.

Sinking resources of time, energy and money into retrieving what was lost and what really wasn’t NU’s to have in the first place is a futile exercise in chasing windmills and searching for an elixir that does not exist.

Far better for NU to cut its losses of misspent resources and tarnished reputation and accept its place in the college football universe as a Power Five Conference Division I also-ran than to covet something beyond its reach. Having been to the top, that’s a tough reality for NU and its fans to accept. Far better still then for NU to swallow the bitter pill of hurt pride and do the smart thing by dropping down to the Football Championship Subdivision, where it can realistically compete for championships that are increasingly unattainable at the Football Bowl Subdivision. If it’s really all about the process, pursuing excellence and building character, and not about getting those alluring TV  showcases and payouts, those mega booster gifts and those sell-outs, then that’s where the priority should be. If it’s about developing young men who become educated, productive, good citizens and contributors  to society, then that certainly can be done at the FCS level. Hell, it can be done better there without all the distractions and hype surrounding big-time football.

 

Steven M. Sipple: After latest loss, NU leaders face tough decisions

 

This isn’t about quitting or taking the easy way out when the going gets rough, it’s about getting smart and honestly owning who you are, what you’re ceiling is and making the best use of resources.

Nebraskans are pragmatic people in everything but Husker football. With this state government facing chronic budget shortfalls. corporate headquarters leaving and a brain drain of its best and brightest in full effect, it seems to me the university should check its priorities. I say let go of the past and embrace a new identity whose future is less sexy but far more realistic and more befitting this state. Sure, that move would mean risk and sacrifice, not to mention criticism and resistance. It would take leadership with real courage to weather all that.

But how about NU leading the way by taking a bold course that rejects the big money and fat exposure for a saner, stripped-down focus on football without the high stakes and salaries and hysteria? Maybe if NU does it, others will follow. Even if they don’t, it’s the right thing to do. Not popular or safe, but right.

When has that ever been a bad move?

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