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Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Music is legacy and salvation for classical cowboy Hadley Heavin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the October 2018 issue of New Horizons

Hadley Heavin encountered a personal crossroads in the 1970s. He was a Vietnam War veteran with a background playing blues-rock guitar and competing in rodeo -– pursuits he thought he’d left behind. Little did he know he was about to embark on an improbable road less traveled as a classical cowboy.

He’s long taught classical guitar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also taught at College of Saint Mary, Creighton University, Union College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s given countless master classes, residencies and recitals. He and his band Tablao were fixtures at Espana and Little Espana.

Forty-five years ago though he was adrift. It was a dark period of his life. The light in his life returned when he discovered classical guitar. He no sooner taught himself to play that style when, in storybook fashion, he was discovered by Spanish master Segundo Pastor. The maestro passed onto his protege the art form’s direct lineage from its multi-generational source.

Heavin lived nearly a year in Madrid, where daily lessons and hard work made this country boy weaned on American roots music a virtuosic classical player. The men’s lives were intertwined for a decade. Heavin healed and reinvented himself as a performer and educator, taking up riding and roping again.

Musical roots

Heavin’s life has a way of coming around in full circles. Growing up an all-around athlete and a musician in the Ozarks, he became known for both his horsemanship and musicianship. His grandfather, father and uncles all played guitar professionally – swing and jazz – and young Hadley emerged the family prodigy, playing with his father’s band before gravitating to blues and rock. He played some drums but guitar was his destiny.

“Making music was just something we did,” Heavin said, “I was a little freak because I could play really well. I grew up in an environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

About his father, E.C. Heavin, he said, “I haven’t heard anybody any better than he was. I had a lot of admiration for the kind of music he played. He knew the guitar perfectly. He couldn’t read music, but he could walk up on stage and play anything. He was amazing.”

Hadley’s Uncle Frog still cuts some mean licks at 90.

Athletic ability was another birthright. Frog played pro baseball as did Heavin’s mother.

Losing himself in the war

Hadley made the football team at the University of Kansas as a walk-on and showed promise on the Midwest rodeo circuit. Then he got drafted into the U.S. Army. His carefree existence vanished. Trained to be a killing machine, he fulfilled tours of life or death duty. The searing experience made the music inside him stop. He was unsure if it would ever return.

As a forward observer and artillery fire officer with 1st Field Force, he shuttled from one hot LZ to another with an M79 grenade launcher.

“I was what they called a ‘bastard.’ I would work with all different units. They would just send me wherever they needed me. I was on hill tops, some I can remember like LZ Lily. I was at Dactau and Ben Het during the siege. We were surrounded for like 30 days. I was in the jungle the whole time, mostly in the north, in Two Corps, close to the border of Laos and Cambodia.

“I saw base camp twice.”

Wounded by an AK47 round in a fire fight, he came home to recover. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, he impulsively entered the bare back at a local rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries. The horse came out and bucked towards the fence and my spur hung in the fence and hung me upside down, facing the opposite way. He was kicking me in the back as he was bucking away. I got hurt. I could hardly walk that night. When I got back to base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. Here I was a decorated combat vet, and they were going to court-martial me.”

Cooler heads prevailed and he completed his military service with an honorable discharge. Like so many combat brethren, he returned home broken.

“I was having bad PTSD. I didn’t know where my life was going. I wasn’t necessarily a violent person but that’s what I was used to. It kind of becomes no big deal at some point in your life. It becomes a big deal after the fact when you’ve got PTSD.”

He resents the morally bankrupt orders he followed.

“Emotionally, I was a mess from the war just as much for the atrocities I was forced to commit than what actually happened to me because there’s always collateral damage. You see that and you see that you’re responsible for it. It doesn’t turn off. It never does.

“I had some years there where I had a hard time because I felt I was part of something that was wrong.”

Then there’s the physical toll.

“I have a broken immune system because of Agent Orange. It became hard for me to travel. I started getting sick in my 50s. Every time I’d fly somewhere to play a concert I’d play with a fever or something. That got really old. It’s curtailed my travel.”

Adding insult to injury, he said the VA “won’t help – you’ve got to be near death before they’ll help you with that.” In the meantime, he said, the effects “can destroy your life and career.” His request for treatment went before an evaluation board who denied him care.

“I’m just shocked this country doesn’t treat its veterans very well. They just aren’t. I’ve been to the VA hospital. It’s not like going to a normal hospital. You’re just a number. These patients are the guys that fight for their country. They should have the same health care as everyone. Everybody says thank you for your service. Well, that doesn’t help very much. Why don’t you vote for somebody that’s going to help the veterans?”

Coming back to music

In his post-war funk he quit music, roping and riding. But those passions kept calling him back.

“I suffered because by then my father was gone and my mother couldn’t support me. Somehow I played guitar and kept myself fed.”

He was working a job unloading trucks in Springfield, Missouri when, on a whim, he went to see a classical guitarist perform. It changed his life.

“I was enthralled and it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Right then and there I knew what I was going to do with my life. The feeling that came over me fulfilled me more than anything else ever had up to that time. A part of it was, I needed something, Classical guitar was the thread that gave me something to hang onto just to get through life and the pain.”

He taught himself via recordings and books. Then he found an instructor who took him as far as he could.

“As soon as my hands could take it I practiced six to eight hours a day working a full-time job.”

Attending school on the GI Bill, he convinced the music dean at then-Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) to start a degree guitar program for him.

“I had such a passion for it that I was going to find a way  – whatever it took.”

Once in a lifetime opportunity

Then, a meeting changed his life again. Touring legend Pastor saw Heavin play a concert on campus. He asked to meet Heavin. Pastor complimented the talented beginner and told him what to work on. Pastor returned a year later to instruct Heavin for two weeks and then offered taking him on as his only student in Spain.

Dumbstruck and flattered by this once in a lifetime opportunity, Heavin still needed thousands of dollars to realize it, He approached school department heads and each passed him off onto someone else. His last resort was the head of religious studies, Gerrit tenZhthoff, a Dutch war hero who resisted the Nazis.

“I told him my story – that I played for this man (Pastor) who’s the best in the world and I would be his only student. As I was explaining this he jumped out of his chair and said, ‘This is wonderful, this is amazing.’ He got me the scholarships, got me everything I needed. He even made it so that I kept getting credit while I was away in Spain. He did all of it.”

MSU has recognized Heavin as an honored alumnus.

Heavin leaned on tenZhthoff for more than funding.

“I actually used to go and tell my problems to him. He was always there for me helping me through the shit. He was just a great guy. I owe my existence in the way that I’ve lived my life to people like him and to the maestro. I was just sort of there and fell into some stuff.”

Finding himself and his purpose

Pastor became his next mentor.

“The maestro and my time in Spain was my salvation. The guitar saved me. When I arrived there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. I realized shortly after I got there I was his only student. He rarely took them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.

“He put all of himself into that one student. That’s why he didn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale…”

Heavin struggled with why he should be so fortunate.

“The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain. It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It nagged at him the entire time he was there.

“I kept asking, ‘Why did you pick me?’ And he would never answer it. I suspected he may may have just felt sorry for me because I was a Vietnam vet and I wanted to play guitar and he saw the gleam in my eye.”

Then, the night before his study-abroad fellowship was up and he had to return home, Heavin walked with Pastor down a wet, cobblestone street in Old Madrid.

“He said, ‘You keep asking why I picked you over all the Spanish boys. Well, truthfully, the Spanish boys are good guitarists and will always be good guitarists.’ Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘But you will be a great guitarist.’ Until then, I was too naive to know if I was any good or not. But he knew. It gave me everything I needed to go forward.”

Not only did Pastor give him a career, Heavin said, “he gave me back myself.”

“He became like my father. We got really close.”

Pastor opened doors to him in Spain that otherwise would have been closed.

“What surprised me mostly when I got there is that he would have me go with him to these recitals he performed for the governors of the provinces in these beautiful concert halls. He would introduce me to very stately, formal people with diamonds on their cigarette holders. I was out of my league. He would me talk me up to these people. i just kept my mouth shut because I was a fish out of water.

“What he was doing was introducing me to the fact I didn’t need to be intimidated. Afterward he would say, ‘I always tell them what they want to hear and then I laugh about it later.’ In other words, don’t take it seriously. Deal with the people you have to deal with and try to understand them so that nobody’s offended. To him a concert was there to make everyone feel better, no matter who they were.”

The jovial Pastor charmed the upper crust in one setting and street people in another. With Pastor’s help, Heavin regained his own sense of humor.

“You can’t take life too seriously.”

Segundo Pastor

Second home

He found acceptance in Spain even after his ally and teacher died.

“After he passed away I did a tour with my friend Pedro, who was also a guitarist, playing the maestro’s music. We played in some of the same places the maestro had taken me to. We even played in his hometown where he was buried. We were very well received. We would always open the program with duets. Then one of us would close the first half by playing solo. Then the other one would play solo. Then we’d finish up with duets. Almost all the music was what the maestro played or wrote. It was a homage to his life.

“I remember walking out on stage at a music school to play solo. I looked out in the audience – there were a lot of guitarists there – and everybody was sitting up straight with their arms crossed, like, Who is this American? It made me a little tentative. But when I got done playing I got a standing ovation and everybody came walking up to me, kind of ignoring Pedro. Everybody was hugging me. Meanwhile. Pedro was over there getting mad. But when Pedro and I played in the States, he was the exotic one, so it was like a tradeoff, only the Americans were a little more forgiving.”

Earlier, Heavin toured Spain and America with Pastor. They once played Carnegie Hall together. He even brought Pastor to perform in Omaha.

During his time in Spain with the maestro, Heavin was introduced to the great guitar builders in Madrid, including the legendary Manuel Contreras.

“I got to know them personally. I played their guitars.”

He also got in on the end of a romantic era when artists – musicians, painters, writers – would get together in cafes to throw down beer or wine while talking about politics or bullfighting or art.

“But those days are gone,” he laments. “The last time I was back there I was talking to some young people about this musician or that musician and they didn’t know who I was talking about. They didn’t even know who Manuel de Falla was (one of Spain’s preeminent composers of the 20th century). I’m glad I got to experience that culture at the time that I did.”

Memories of Pastor are embedded in him. He absorbed the maestro’s mannerisms. The way Heavin plays and teaches, he said, is “very similar” to Pastor.

Heavin recalls a New York City recital they did together. Beforehand, Heavin peaked out from behind a curtain to see a jam-packed hall whose overflow crowd was even seated in folding chairs on stage.

“He saw me looking worried because of all the people and he asked, ‘Hadley, are you nervous?’ I said, ‘Yes, maestro, I’m very nervous.’ He said, ‘Why? Only five guitarists have died on stage.’ I started laughing and I played really well that night. So I’ve used that numerous times on students before they go on stage.”

Once. while visiting Pastor in the town of Caunce, he was reminded how much he took after his teacher.

“His son and I were walking behind him. Segundo said  something funny and I started laughing just like him and his son took my arm and said, ‘It is necessary for you to play the guitar like my father. It is not necessary for you to be like my father.'”

Having learned Spanish in Spain. he became fluent. “But I’m not so good at it anymore because I don’t use it. When i start using it, it starts coming back.”

A part of him would have loved making his home in Spain. But his family’s here. He helped raise his daughter Kaitlin with his ex-wife. Kaitlin is lead singer in his band Tablao. About a decade ago he remarried and now he has grandkids to dote on.

He teaches part-time, plays local gigs (you can soon catch him at The Hunger Block), ropes and rides. He was a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist for decades,  but his touring days are over.

“I enjoy not worrying about stuff so much anymore –making that flight or getting somewhere.”

 

The cowboy thing

His escape from academia is still the outdoors.

“The cowboy thing comes from when I was 4-years old watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies. We grew up with a real simple outlook on how life’s supposed to be from these good guy and bad guy Western values. It’s pretty complex now. There’s a lot of variables that I think are hard for people to deal with.

“I loved horses. I always wanted a horse from the time I was four. When I was in high school I couldn’t afford a horse so I started rodeoing – riding bare back broncs and bulls.”

He fell head over spurs for it.

“It was a short-lived career because I went in the Army.”

He eventually got back into riding and roping. Today, he mostly enters team roping jackpots and Western horse shows. He has lots of stories. Like the time he was on a gelding at Kent Martin’s horse ranch.

“I backed him in the box and I roped two or three steers. I was heeling on him and he’d come around the corner and buck a little. But I was kind of showing off, thinking, ‘Aw, that’s nothing.’ Then there was one steer that ran really hard. I still thought, ‘We’ll be alright.’ Well, we’re going around the corner and he just started bucking. The steer was getting away from us and I was leaning out over the front trying to rope this steer and the next thing I know I went off right over the front of his head and landed on my shoulder. He stepped on the other shoulder as he was bucking over the top.”

As Heavin lay sprawled in the dirt, sore and dazed, Martin came riding up on his horse, not to offer sympathy, but good-natured cowboy sarcasm.

“Looking down at me, Kent said, ‘Get up, Hadley.’ I said, ‘I can’t right now.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to charge you a tanning fee if you lay there lay any longer.'”

Martin doesn’t let it go at that. He describes the fall tis way: “The wind changed directions just gradually and caught Hadley just wrong, and he fell off.”

Heavin takes the ribbing in stride, saying, “That’s the way cowboys are. Everybody gets bucked off and   everybody gets injured. It’s no big deal.”

Martin does concede that Heavin “rides pretty good.”

Just as in Spain, Heavin travels in many circles in Nebraska and gets on with everybody. It’s bred in him.

“My whole family were Southern Democrats. We had all kinds of friends, even in the South.” As a progressive living in a Red State, he’s used to debating his Republican friends. “Luckily they tolerate me because I stand up to the stuff they say. We argue. They say things like, ‘We should kick him out of this roping club.'”

He doesn’t mince words about American adventurism.

“I understand Afghanistan was a response to 9/11 and we needed to be able to strike out against something. Iraq, I didn’t understand. That country’s much worse than it would have been if we had left it alone. I didn’t agree with that war. We get our people killed, we spent billions and billions and billions of dollars and we got guys like (Dick) Cheney making a fortune off it.

“I think (George W.) Bush’s heart was probably in the right place, but I think he was mislead. He went in there thinking there were weapons of mass destruction.”

Few of his students and fellow faculty know he’s a vet.

“I don’t tell those people much about this stuff,” he said within earshot of Martin, who quipped, “Hadley’s a closet cowboy.”

Heavin still burns from an old headline that described him as a “real rootin’-tootin’ classical guitar playing cowboy. “I took a lot of heat over that.” He prefers “classical cowboy.”

Music educator

Music offers escape from daily worries, world affairs and partisan politics. He’s been teaching classical guitar almost as long as he’s played it.

“I started teaching as an undergraduate, just privately, in Missouri. While studying for my masters at the University of Denver, I taught all the undergraduates in guitar and coached the ensembles.

“I came to UNO in 1982.”

Combining performing with teaching is tough.

“One robs you of the other. If I were out there performing a lot I wouldn’t be as good a teacher. I would have to be very selfish. I wasn’t a very good a teacher back when I toured because I wasn’t around as much. I’d go off on tour to play and then I’d come back and try to do makeup lessons and it’s really hard to do.

“Touring robs you of putting energy into other people when you have to have that yourself to go on stage and play as perfectly and as musically as you can. It’s a lot of energy, especially with classical guitar. It’s just a difficult instrument to play. After I started winding that down, teaching became more and more important. It’s a high priority for me.

“I’ve got former students out there teaching now and they teach kids that eventually come to me. It’s all coming full circle.”

Some former students are accomplished players, such as Ron Cooley, who plays with Mannheim Steamroller.

For years he only taught adults, but now he’s started teaching younger people and enjoys it.

He also teaches older than average students.

“I’ve got a 72-year-old lady, Sue Russell, that takes lessons and she’s really good. She’s been studying with me for probably 20 years. She plays Flamenco and classical. She’s awesome.

“I have a cardiologist, John Cimino, who’s studied with me for 20 years. He’s amazing. He practices every day despite his busy schedule.”

Long graduated students still rely on his expertise to fix technical problems others cannot. One former student came to him after his new teacher could not explain how to correct a flaw with his fingering.

“I said, ‘Here’s what you do,’ and I explained to him the physiology of it and how he could make it work and he just sat there and did it. That’s what other teachers miss

and that’s from 40 years of teaching.

“Some of the best players can’t teach at all. They’ll be sitting there teaching somebody in front of people and this student obviously has a big issue with a certain finger and the teacher will just say, ‘Well. you’re doing that wrong,’ but they can’t tell them how to do it. That’s what I’m good at.”

Expressive playing is big with Heavin. One of his all-time guitar idols, Steve Ray Vaughan, exemplified it.

“Musically I’m really big into the emotional side of playing. I’ve got a good balance between the physical and emotional. But it’s really hard to teach guitar. You can give all kinds of exercises to do. Some guys will do the work and nothing ever really happens. There has to be a thought process in a student’s head to actually make that happen.”

He recognizes Pastor’s teaching in his own instruction.

“Like he did with me, if someone’s doing something wrong I’ll shake my finger and say, ‘No!’ That taught me how to focus and to take this more seriously. It permeates my teaching today. And a lot of times I ask questions. I’ll stop them in a piece and say, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s how I get their focus.

“Until they start questioning something, they don’t listen. I’ll gradually hone in on the issue before getting to it too quickly. I’ll say, ‘Your wrist is cocked a certain way which causes your A finger to hit at a different angle,’ and then I’ll ask to see their hand. I might say, ‘That nail looks like it’s filed differently than the others.’ I’ll drill them and write out an exercise for them to do to fix that problem and show them how it’s supposed to feel. The hardest thing to do is to teach somebody how to feel something, but I’m really good at it.”

He rarely imparts the classical lineage he represents.

“I’m a little careful with that. I don’t just hand that to everybody. If I’ve got a student working hard and in their last year, then I start dealing with that lineage. I will have them play a piece by Francisco Tarrega. Then we’ll deal with all the technical issues. Then I’ll talk about this lineage thing. ‘What you’re going to hear from me now is as if you were sitting with Tarrega himself because the man I studied with studied with the man who studied with Tarrega, and this has been passed on.

“It’s not just me they’re getting it from, they’re getting it from all of us in the line. The students that figure that out and treasure that are the ones that go off to other schools and blow everybody away,”

He has students watch top guitarists on YouTube to illustrate that even technically brilliant players can lack subtlety  “Those players have it totally wrong. They’re not that close to the source so they don’t know how it’s played. It’s technical but not expressive.”

Heavin breaks it down for students.

“I’ll tell them what’s wrong with it. I’ll say, ‘Here’s what Tarrega wants–- he wants this to be very rhythmic through this phrase because this is going to be a recurring rhythmic unity in the piece. But we don’t do it all the time. It’s what we come back to each time to set it up again. Even a lot of great players don’t know.’

“That’s when they start feeling they’re getting something here that’s different. Some of them are never going to get it and maybe they’re doing it for different reasons. The guitar’s not really their major or where they’re going to end up, so I don’t necessarily put that on them  because it’s almost a responsibility once you have it.”

His world-class level instruction fits well within a UNO Music Department he says has “risen to a high level.”

“Hadley’s exceptional professional experience enhances our programs in a unique way,” said UNO School of Music Director Washington Garcia. “Visiting guest artist Manuel Barrueco, one of the greatest concert guitarists of all time, left Omaha raving about the talent of our students, all due to Hadley’s work and unconditional commitment to their artistic and academic development. As an artist, Hadley carries that tradition of many great masters and is a reflection of talent at its best.”

Having it his way

His cowboy friends know about his classical side. His recitals in Omaha and western Nebraska draw roping cronies.

“They’re full of questions, like, what about your hands?”

To protect his digits, he’s headed most of his roping life. Atop his horse, a header runs with the steer and can kick off when in trouble. Heeling entails catching up to a hard-charging steer moving away. Applying a rope can singe, even take fingers. At his age he’s now allowed to tie on hard and fast, which makes heeling safer.

Wherever he goes in ranch-rodeo country, he can swap stories with horsemen. One such place is the giant Pitzer Ranch in the Sandhills.

A top hand, Riley Renner, “won the very difficult ranch horse competition out there and he did it riding my mare Baley,” Heavin, said sounding like a proud owner.

“They do what they call a cowboy trail where they run this obstacle course. They’re running flat out, too. It’s a timed event. It’s all judged. The thing started at 7 in the morning and didn’t get over until 11 at night. The same horse all day long. My mare is kind of famous for going through that. She’s big and strong and easy.”

Asked if he’s ever played guitar on horseback, Heavin deadpanned. “I don’t mix the two genres.”

He enjoys socializing but if he had his druthers he’d just as soon hang out with horses.

Training a horse and a person is not so different.

“There’s a process you go through that’s not always exactly whispering. It’s more of making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy, so that the horse believes this is what I need to do. That’s where the trust comes in.”

With students, he said, “I use a lot of horse analogies, like trying too hard and getting too tight. I’ll back them off and say, ‘You’re kind of like a horse that’s nervous in the box. If you try too hard, you end up beating yourself up.  I wait till the horse relaxes.'” Similarly, with students, he said, “I slow everything way down so they can think about every move they make. And it works.”

Pastor’s loving instruction won the trust of his greatest student. Forgiveness freed Heavin to share with others the sublime gift of his music and lineage.

It’s been quite a ride.

Heavin doesn’t consider his story anything special. In his best Western wit, he sums up his life this way: “A guy’s gotta do something between living and dying.”

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

 

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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

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

March 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

When new UNO Office of Latino and Latin American Studies community engagement coordinator Alina Lopez appears at public forums and school assemblies to tout OLLAS academic programs and scholarships, she speaks from experience.

This 2017 magna cum laude University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate found OLLAS opportunities herself as a volunteer and a Next Generation Leadership scholar.

Embedded in her outreach is a desire to help Latinas pursue higher education. She doesn’t want them deferring their dreams due to challenges like those she faced as a young mother in a domestic violence relationship. She lets aspirants know obstacles don’t need to prevent attaining goals. She delayed her college studies a decade until leaving her abuser. Once free, she shined in the classroom and blossomed as a woman and as a professional.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, she was 3 when her family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where they lived until she was 12. Then they moved to Ogden, Utah. Concerns about undocumented status and the death of her grandfather prompted the family’s return to Mexico. Though an exceptional student, she struggled in Mexican schools and convinced her parents to let her return to the States.

She joined an older sister then living in Bellevue, Neb. Lopez graduated from Bryan High School – the last of five high schools she attended.

“I think I grew to be okay with change. I can adapt very well. But when you’re 15-16, parental guidance is essential. Not having that was the toughest part.”

Lopez married young and began having children. She’s the mother of five today.. She was an Omaha Public Schools ESL specialist and administrative aide at her alma mater, Bryan, where she helped coach girls soccer. Assistant principal Tracy Wernsman emboldened her.

“She was a mentor who was like an angel sent from God,” said Lopez. “She talked me through things like, ‘If you leave that relationship, you’ll be okay, you can do it,’ and so in 2011 I finally had the guts to say, ‘No more.’ Tracy told me I had great potential and needed to pursue college. Once I became liberated, I pursued it.”

Another strong influence has been Spring Lake Magnet principal Susan Aguilera-Robles.

“She is a great role model for me. She’s gone through a lot and dedicated her life to helping others. Being the principal of a school takes a lot. I know she has really bad days and really good days, but she’s made it work

and she makes it look easy.”

Lopez worked multiple jobs to support her family while earning an associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College. Then she enrolled at UNO.

“Trying to figure it all out was very challenging and stressful, but well worth it.”

None of it was possible without first taking her life back.

“It makes you a stronger person. For a woman to get out of it is empowering. It makes you want to mentor other females going through the same. You don’t want anybody else to go through what you went through.”

School provided sanctuary and affirmation.

“After being divorced, you feel like a failure. When I enrolled in college I wanted to feel good about myself and to make up for lost time. It was a personal goal to attain a 4.0 GPA and I did it. I’m hungry to learn. I’m hard on myself. I want to give the best of me. I know what I’m capable of and so I push myself. School has always been my safe place. When I’m studying, it feels peaceful, so I’ve dedicated myself to school.”

She’s now eying a dual masters program in public administration and social work. She expects to earn a  Ph.D. as well.

Her curiosity extends beyond books. She participated in an international student program that took her to Hong Kong for five weeks last summer, where she joined other students from around the world. “I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it, and it was life-changing. If I could go back, I’d do it all over again.”

She went beyond her job description at Bryan to influence young people.

“I was drawn to the kids who carried the most challenges with them. I wanted to know who they were, what they were going through. I also encouraged Latinas to seek post-secondary scholarships. It felt really good.”

While studying at UNO, Lopez became a regular in the OLLAS office and when the community engagement coordinator post opened, it seemed a perfect fit.

“Every single thing has led me to this point. I saw UNO and OLLAS offered the opportunity for more growth and academic success. We’re here to support students.”

She envisions one day realizing another dream – “to start an organization dedicated to young Latino women.” “I feel sometimes we let our culture oppress ourselves,” she said, “especially the immigrant community. We tend to look at our culture as more important than anything. For me, the thought of divorce was not even an option because when you marry, you marry until death do you part. A lot of women stay in a bad life and don’t receive support from family to leave it. I wish to help Latinas who don’t find support elsewhere.”

Lopez, who formed a single parent group at UNO, has come a long way herself.

“It’s been quite the journey.”

Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Diana Acero is squarely focused on helping others as Douglas County Health Department‘s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program coordinator.

“Having this position has helped me realize how much I enjoy working with people and letting the community know we’re here to help you,” says Acera, who took the job in 2007 after working for One World Community Heath Centers.

Lowering children’s lead levels brings satisfaction. She says, “Then I’m like, Wow, the family really got the message, this child is going to get better, they’re going to be successful in life. We made a difference.”

Lead poisoning is directly linked to developmental and behavioral problems in children. The condition can be symptom-less until a child begins falling behind or acting out in school. It can only be diagnosed through testing.

Using various means Acero informs parents, educators and daycare providers about lead hazards and prevention resources. She also tests children, She, a fellow case manager and allied community health workers visit homes, schools, community centers, Head Start centers and health fairs. Acero finds it hard not personalizing the affected youths she meets.

“These are my children,” she says. “I call them my babies.”

Her passionate work earned her the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Government Award in 2010.

“It’s nice to be recognized for what you do for the Latino community but it also means you have to do even more — to reach more people, to do more prevention,” she says.

She won’t rest until every child’s tested and childhood lead poisoning is eliminated.

“I’m working for a better Omaha, healthier children, a healthier community.”

Acero and her husband have lived in Omaha since 2000. She came here from her native Bogota, Colombia to learn English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

She worked in the University of Nebraska Medical Center microbiology department before joining One World as lab technician, Later, as lab coordinator, she grew aware of Omaha’s childhood lead poisoning problem through collaborations with the county lead prevention program, whose then coordinator recommended Acero as her replacement.

Acero’s lab background, bilingual abilities and community-based experience made her a natural choice. Her primary mission is education aimed at prevention. A major challenge is informing people about environmental dangers, whether lead-based house paint (prevalent in homes built prior to 1978) or car and house keys. Some cultural practices introduce additional risks. For example, ceramic bean pots many Hispanics cook with and popular Mexican candies are tainted with lead. Some African refugees eat dirt, risking exposure to lead contaminated soil.

Partnering her efforts is the Omaha Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance. At-risk families that meet income guidelines may receive home lead abatement assistance from partnering agencies.

Children are referred to local Women and Infant Care or WIC programs for nutrition consultation. Increased calcium and Vitamin C can fight lead poisoning.

A common myth, says Acero, is that lead risks are an inner city issue. “It doesn’t matter where you live. If you let your child play with keys and your child goes to a pinata party where there’s Mexican candy, your child’s’ going to be exposed.” She adds that homes with lead-based paint aren’t confined to east Omaha. That’s why she says, “parents need to be concerned and they need to ask for a test.

Marisol Rodriguez helps Hispanic businesses grow

March 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Marisol Rodriguez helps Hispanic businesses grow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

With professional educators as parents, Marisol Rodriguez and her two siblings grew up in Colombia with the expectation of attending college and embarking on careers of their own.

“Education is a value my parents definitely gave to all three of us,” says Rodriguez, whose hometown is Cucuta, a commercial center bordering Venezuela.

Her work today as director of the Nebraska Business Development Center’s Lincoln (Neb.) Service Center is education-focused. The NBDC is a nonprofit resource for start-up and existing businesses. As service center director she consults with clients about all aspects of business — reviewing business plans, doing cash flow analysis, offering loan application assistance and developing financial projections. She partners with other organizations to present workshops.

NBDC services are free.

To further her professional growth she’s received certification in leadership and management from the NBDC and as an economic development finance professional from the National Development Council.

The bilingual Rodriguez specializes in assisting the Spanish-speaking community in and around Lincoln and Omaha, where she lives, through NBDC and her work as a board member with both El Centro de las Americas and Community Development Resources.

Her support of emerging small businesses led to her being named Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Business Award winner in 2010.

“For me, it’s recognition and commitment.” she says of the honor. “Recognition, because in Colombia I worked with the community and since coming to the United States I have been working with the Hispanic community. Commitment, because it doesn’t stop with winning the award. No, on the contrary it’s to continue working and trying to improve the quality of Hispanic businesses. I can contribute to that.”

She long ago set her sights on doing something in a public service capacity.

Intrigued by numbers, she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in her native Colombia. She worked as an accountant before moving to the United States about a decade ago. She and her husband settled in Omaha, where extended family members resided.

She then decided to broaden her skill set by earning an associate’s degree in management information systems at Metropolitan Community College (MCC).

To improve her prospects in the business field she obtained her master’s degree in economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She began working with NBDC, a department in the UNO College of Business Administration, while in graduate school.

She says the center’s mission of “helping small businesses to become better” appeals to her. “I really enjoy meeting with clients — business owners or people who want to start small businesses. I really like to share information with them so they have more chances of being successful with their business.”

Since taking up residence in Nebraska she’s noted “the growing” Hispanic business sector here. She’s also noted that more Hispanic entrepreneurs “need to understand the importance of a business plan and the process of starting a business and maintaining a business.” Too often, she says, Hispanics miss out on larger marketplace opportunities by only appealing to Hispanic customers.

If Hispanics are to maximize their business potential, she says, “they must educate themselves,” and that’s where NBDC comes in.

She’s an advocate of entrepreneurs, Hispanic or not, taking advantage of the networking and professional and personal growth opportunities that forums like the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference afford.

Rodriguez, who recently gave birth to her first child, teaches Intro to Entrepreneurship at MCC and a zumba dance fitness class at the La Vista Community Center.

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

February 1, 2018 1 comment

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon appearing in El Perico

 

Nebraska is far from the theater capital of the world, yet many natives have trod the Broadway boards – from Henry Fonda to Sandy Dennis to Andrew Rannells. Actress-singer Roni Shelley Perez, 21, hopes to join their ranks. The Omaha Marian and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has graced several area stages and is now pursuing her dream in New York City during winter audition season.

This daughter of native Filipino parents has prepared for this all her life.

“I’ve been singing since I was very young. I sang-along to Barney songs ay 3. I started playing guitar at 8,” said Perez.

She also plays the ukelele.

She began performing for family functions and Filipino community gatherings at 11.

“I used to play guitar and sing Filipino covers.”

It earned her spending money.

But performing is, first and foremost, “a healing art” for Perez. “Stories told in songs can be relatable. People going through that same situation need to hear these stories. It’s hard for people to be vulnerable, so to see someone else vulnerable helps them to know it’s okay to feel.,” she said. “Performing arts can be very impactful. It’s a shareable, very much a collective experience.”

In SNAP Productions’ mounting of In the Heights at Omaha South High last spring, Perez’s character Nina mirrored her own life as the eldest child of aspirational immigrant parents in a tight ethnic community.

“Like Nina, there was all this pressure on me growing up to ‘Go, you can do this.’ That role answered a lot of questions for myself.”

She found support as a UNO Goodrich Scholarship Program recipient.

“Goodrich was like a family and definitely one of the best things I took from my undergrad. They believed in me and took a chance on me.”

Her parents were initially dubious when she majored in vocal performance and musical theater.

“Every immigrant parent is hoping for the American dream and I’m going into a field where financial stability is not really a thing. They were scared for me to go into music. But then as soon as opportunities started happening (scholarships, prizes, accolades), they realized, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ I feel like I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s been such a huge part of my life that I can make it into a career.”

The mainstream success Filipina performers enjoy, ala singer-actress Lea Salonga, gives added hope.

“She’s a big influence. She represents the Filipino community in musical theater.”

Filipino actresses have made waves in Hamilton in New York and London. “All these people are just very inspiring.” Then there’s singer-actress Sarah Geronimo. “Growing up, my mom would always play her music and I always looked up to her. She has a beautiful voice. I wanted to sing like her. I wanted to be like her.”

Perez dreams of Broadway but for now her goal is to “just perform professionally” as a working artist. “If it;s there, then I want to turn it into something bigger. I don’t even know what I’m capable of yet.”

It’s doubtful any performer from Neb. has been more prepared at such a young age. She boasts years of high-level training and performing. At 18, she won the part of Mary Magdalene in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s worked with New York stage professionals at the Open Jar Institute, NYU Steinhardt’s Summer Study in Musical Theatre and Shetler Studios’ workshop of Zanna Redux.

“I’ve been going to New York every year now to see where I am ability-wise. I’ve been making connections.”

In Omaha, she got scholarships to Broadway Dreams Foundation Summer Intensive Workshops in 2013 and 2014, studying under and performing with Tony Award nominees and winners. It grew her confidence.

“It showed me what I need to continue working on but also it was like, ‘Hey, if I’m able to perform with them right now, I’ll be able to stand my ground and eventually get to their level too.’ It’s been very encouraging and definitely humbling. Like, I’m clearly not the best, but I can work at it and come to that level.”

She’s participated in master classes through Omaha Performing Arts. The 2016 National Student Auditions competition winner has been recognized by the Playhouse, Theatre Arts Guild and Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Last year, she and a classmate won first place in the Musical Theatre Division of the National Opera Association’s Collegiate Opera Scenes Competition.

She attributes her drive to her hard-working parents, who own their own business.

“I want to give back and work just as hard. I can’t even fathom coming from a third-world country to the United States with poor English and trying to start a family and career. It’s very inspiring and always on my mind as I take on new roles and shows.”

At 20, Perez earned the lead in Heathers at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre. Her character sings the entire show, so she trained to build vocal stability and stamina. It was both her first lead and first paid acting gig.

“That role came very close to my heart,” she said. “I’m grateful the Blue Barn took a chance on me.”

She returned there this past summer as the title character in Priscilla.

Her most “demanding and rewarding role” came last fall in UNO’s production of Spring Awakening.

“This one really tested my vulnerability and sacrifice. I had to let everything go. That was very hard to do.

Everything I’m doing is giving me a better version of     myself or helping me be my best. There’s always something to learn – always. I love a good challenge.”

Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who’s twice directed Perez. is convinced she has what it takes to make it.

“I expect it and I’m exhilarated for the moment when that happens,” Clement-Toberer said. “She was born to do this. She’s got the vision of what she wants to do, and if there are nos along the way, it’s not going to stop her.”

Perez herself said she’s going after it now “because I think I do have what it takes to succeed.”

Follow her at www/ronishelleyperez.com.

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.”

 

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