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.
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.”
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 Omaha South High boys soccer program is a dynasty in the making. The only thing missing is a run of state championships. They have one, in 2013, and it came in record-setting, dominant fashion. There have been other state finals appearances, but so far that title three years ago is the only end of season, top dog bragging rights the Packers have been able to claim. Year in and year out for a decade now though the Packers are a threat to go all the way. This year is no different. This El Perico story I wrote appeared just as the 2016 state tourney got underway on Thursday, May 12. No. 3 ranked South expected to have it easy against wildcard North Platte but instead the Packers were extended to the limit before pulling out a 2-1 win. With the opening round win, South plays Saturday, May 14 against the state’s No. 1 ranked team, Omaha Westside, at Morrison Stadium on the Creighton University campus. It will be the teams’ first meeting this season. Should South win, the Packers will play for it all in the Tuesday, May 17 finals,, where they go up against their arch rival, Omaha Creighton Prep. But getting past Westside will pose a huge challenge. Then again, South seems to rise to the occasion more often than not.
Omaha South soccer poised for another state title run
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in El Perico
The 18-2 No. 3-ranked Omaha South High boys soccer team is back in the state tournament a seventh straight time after winning the District A-3 championship at its own Collin Field on May 3.
South meets wildcard entry North Platte in the Class A quarterfinals on May 12. If the Packers win as expected they meet the winner of the Omaha Westside-Kearney match in Saturday’s semifinals. Westside is the top seed. The Packers and Warriors have not met this year. At state the only way South can face arch rival Omaha Creighton Prep, who beat the Packers in the regular season, is in the May 17 finals.
The state tournament is being played at Morrison Stadium on the Creighton University campus.
South topped Nebraska’s prep rankings the first half of the year and gained national bragging rights at the Smoky Mountain Cup in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The team went unbeaten there to win its division. Back home a 3-2 loss to Millard South at the Metro Conference tournament, followed by a 1-0 setback to Prep, knocked South from the No. 1 perch. Inconsistent play nearly cost South more games.
“I feel when we got back from the mountains and the big emotional ride of that the kids’ legs were definitely tired and some of the kids were mentally tired, too,” Coach Joe Maass says. “We struggled a little bit.
We’d impose our will on a team and then kind of let up and let them come back. The Northwest game right before districts we were up 3-0 and they came back to make it 3-2. We won 4-2 but it wound up being a closer game than it should have been.”
In his team’s two losses and in several close calls Maass expressed frustration with South’s tendency to settle for long balls instead of playing to its midfield strength and controlling possession. South won its own Van Metre Invitational against a tough field but then scuffled in its last two regular season games before regaining form and swagger in district play. The Packers avenged their loss to Millard South by beating the Patriots 2-0 for the title.
“When we got to districts we were a little more focused, like we were in a must-win situation. Whenever our backs are against the wall is when our kids play the hardest and we’re the toughest.”
As has happened all season, South’s quality depth made the difference. Regular goalkeeper Luis Gama, a senior, missed districts due to injury but his backup, sophomore Adrian Felix, pitched two shutouts, including several outstanding saves against the Patriots. Midfielder Poe Reh had scored three goals all season before districts but netted four in back to back games.
Maass praised Felix for rising to the occasion, adding he always had confidence in him. He wasn’t surprised by what Reh did, either.
“Poh Reh was probably one of our better practice players during the season. In the games he would come close to making big plays but maybe didn’t have as much luck as some of the other players. But he’s been really a solid player throughout and then he just got hot that weekend with four goals in 24 hours.”
Through the 2016 campaign, even late in the season, Maass brought up several players from South’s dominant freshman, sophomore, JV teams. The late additions all made contributions. He says players are prepared to enter the bigger varsity stage by intense competition at practice. “In practice they’re competing on a level as if it’s a game.”
Individual and team expectations run high through the program.
“Our culture is based a lot on just belief that we can win every time. We are expecting to compete and win. It’s not good enough to just play on the team and walk around in your jersey in class. It’s about getting Ws.
You have to earn your spot and you have to maintain your spot.”
That winning mindset, he says, is “hard to beat.” “In Tennessee we were down two goals one game but we came right back and scored two and ended up winning. We just have the belief we can come back at all times. We beat Papio South in the 87th minute. We beat Omaha Central in the 99th minute in overtime.” He says it helps to have a senior-laden team. “They’ve played together for a long time.”
Then there’s South two sets of twins who demand excellence. “These four kids are very competitive, feisty and aggressive and they expect everybody else to play aggressive. Jimmi Becerril in particular. He’s the verbal guy that will get on people for not practicing as hard as they should. His brother Jordi is tough as nails but a little more soft spoken. But he pushes the pace as well. The other twins, Israel and Issac Cruz, are our defensive specialists and those guys have been really solid.”
Maass feels South’s poised for a good run at state. “We’re playing confident. We’re going to go just do our thing.” Adding to the confidence is that Morrison Stadium’s large field mirrors South’s home Collin Field.
“Our game is built around using the whole field and space to get around other teams’ size and athleticism. Once we get them out in space where they have to actually have skill on the ball, we have the advantage. A lot of teams just pack it in and hope to keep us out, playing for a shootout, because they know they’re not going to beat us if they play us straight up. It’s harder for teams to bunker in on a big field because there’s still space there.”
Having a team with a community behind it the way South does sure helps. “I know we’ll bring a lot of fans – we always do,” Maass says.
Keeper Luis Gama is expected back for state. His return could be key as Adrian Felix will miss the opener serving a one-game suspension for a red card violation in districts. No sweat for Maass. He feels secure in a third keeper he has ready, Fredy Nava. “He’s pretty good, too.”
At South, it’s always next man up.
Soccer is still no where near as popular in America as football, basketball and baseball but it’s undeniably growing year by year in having a hold on people’s interest and imagination. The emergence of soccer as a prime sport at Omaha South High School gives insight into the demographics at work that will likely one day see the sport challenge the big three team sports and perhaps even overtake them, not just in Omaha or greater Neb., but around the nation. South High is a microcosm for how South Omaha has changed from its largely Eastern European population base from the late 19th century through the 1970s to a largely Hispanic, African and Asian base in recent years. Then and now many of the immigrant and refugee families drawn there have found work in the meatpacking industry, and thus the school’s nickname, Packers. This demographic transformation has had many effects, including a student population that is increasingly soccer-centric. Boys soccer head coach Joe Maass has been there since 2000, when the change was near full flower. Since then he’s taken a moribound program that couldn’t win and nobody wanted to coach and turned it into a budding dynasty. He’s done it with players of Mexican and Latin American heritage and more recently of African heritage who have played soccer practically from the time they could walk and run. These experienced, skilled and passionate players, wave after wave and class after class of them, have made South a perennial contender for metro, district and state titles. Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a a high school soccer game to outdraw a football or basektball game, but that’s often what South high soccer manages to do. When the program first emerged as a force to be reckoned with a few years ago and the team made it to their first state finals, record crowds turned out and most of the fans were rooting for South. The majority of fans were Hispanic. It was a hugh love fest for the team, the school and the South Omaha community. Maass is the mastermind who’s embraced this flood of talent and passion and let it flourish. My El Perico story about Maass and the evolution of South High Soccer was published just as this year’s team has found itself and climbed to No. 1 in the rankings. With the way the Packers are playing, they will be the odds-on favorite to win their second state title in three years.
As this story mentions, South soccer has earned national attention in recent years as one of the country’s best high school squads. It’s also been singled out on the national stage for being part of a turnaround in South Omaha that is Hispanic-led. Somehow I missed until just now that the program got featured in Sports Illustrated in 2015. The feature is part of a larger series on the changing face of sports in America, as demographic shifts compel changes on and off the field at every level of sport. Titled “American Dreamers,” the article highlights the Packers’ journey from an after thought to a perennial power. It also looks at the ongoing transformation of South Omaha and South High and how this immigrant community takes great pride in their soccer team and the impact it’s had across the state. After South cemented its elite status by beating arch rival Omaha Creighton Prep for the 2013 championship players wrote to then-Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman asking him to work to help improve the lives of those in their community. The story also highlights “new life” at Omaha South, including an energized community and recent academic achievements.
Masterful: Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Omaha South High soccer coach Joe Maass enjoys being part of a transformation that’s seen his soccer program blossom from awful to brilliant and his school rise from woebegone to thriving.
He was 26 when he got the job in 2000. That’s unusually young for a big school head coach but it wasn’t like candidates were busting down the doors. Slowly but surely though Maass turned that no-win situation around. He now has South soccer a perennial contender and a point of pride for the school and community it represents.
South has built a near dynasty on the strength of mostly Latino players who’ve become the new face of the more than century-old school. Michael Jaime became the first Gatorade Nebraska Boys Soccer Player of the Year (2013-2014) from South, one of several all-state players with Spanish surnames the school’s produced. In 2010 Manny Lira was the captain of the all-state team. Those players and several others went on to earn college scholarships.
For the ninth consecutive season South’s regarded as a major threat. The No. 1-ranked Packers opened the season with 10 straight wins. Since their first and only defeat of the year, 1-0 to Papiliion LaVista-South on April 13 in the Metro Conference championship game, they’ve beaten traditional rivals Omaha Westside and Omaha Creighton Prep, and on April 20 they avenged their lone loss to Papio LaVista-South. They’ve come together as a team despite injury and suspension.
Maass says the prospects for his 2015 team are promising.
“As a unit we’re really good. I have a lot of pretty good players but there’s not like one or two players miles ahead of everybody else in the state, so this is definitely going to be a team year where a lot of different kids contribute. I think making state would be a fair goal and then maybe when we get there…”
Anything can happen. Only a few years after being a losing team, South made its first state final in 2010, the game infamous for the “green card” incident when opposing fans threw mock green cards on the field to insinuate South players were illegal immigrants. It was the most public in a long line of racial insults directed at South.
Maass says he was proud of “the way his team handled it,” adding, “The kids didn’t retaliate – they stood up for the team and school and for what was right and wrong.”
South then put together arguably the greatest season ever by a Neb. Class A boys soccer team in 2013, going 23-0 en route to the state title, setting many records in the process. Elite Soccer Report named South the top team among states where soccer’s a spring sport.
“We won the whole thing and we did it the right way,” Maass says.
None of it seemed possible 16 years ago.
“Everything that’s been accomplished I would never have imagined. I have a huge sense of pride in that and in knowing that if I stopped coaching tomorrow South High soccer’s still going to be pretty good because we’ve built a strong program.”
Not bad considering what Maass started with.
“The guy who was the head coach before me saw I had some energy and passion, so he stepped down and recommended me to replace him. The truth is nobody else applied, so they just gave it to me because essentially nobody wanted that job. There was nothing desirable about it. It was not very forgiving.
“The program was pretty bad back then. The school really didn’t fund the program. The uniforms were really old. The sport of soccer didn’t get much attention or respect, especially down here.”
Besides low interest and expectations – South won eight games his first four years – it was hard getting kids to play and fans to follow.
“I had somewhere around 11 or 12 players. The first practice there were 15 kids on the field and four of them were off the streets, they weren’t even students. I only had one senior. The next year it was maybe 13 to 15 players. Then 18. Each year it just grew a little bit.”
He scoured South O parks and fields for promising talent and before long gifted players, even some elite club players, filled his rosters.
The facilities were subpar until Collin Stadium opened in 2009, giving the by-then vastly improved program a distinct home advantage with its full-sized soccer field.
The one constant, Maass says, is that “the kids were great kids.” “But,”
he adds, “I don’t think anybody saw South going from being the worst team in the state to what it is now. We’re pretty much a projected top 10 team every year and that’s where we want to be – a top 10 team that everybody has to kind of somewhat fear.”
These days the program gets 100-plus students trying out and carries 80 to 90 players across its varsity, junior varsity and freshman squads. Grads are getting scholarships to play at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Bellevue University and other schools. Several are coaching for South, including Leo Enriquez and Cesar Lira, and several others are coaching for club teams or competing schools.
Where South soccer used to be an after-thought, it’s now a conversation starter. Cara Riggs was South’s principal when Maass engineered the turnaround. More than all the wins, she appreciated the way Maass cared.
“Joe sometimes comes off as tough, maybe even gruff. Underneath that exterior is a very soft-hearted, compassionate man who cares very deeply about the kids he works with. He has high expectations of your hard work and he’s willing to go above and beyond for you and your success. His loyalty to South High, its students and South Omaha is as strong as a Mack truck.”
Tobias Maertzke, a German exchange student who played at South a few years ago, lived with Maass and his wife while going to school there. “He’s like a family member almost,” Maass says.
Maass acknowledges he’s softened and matured since becoming a father. He and his wife have two children.
“I’ve mellowed quite a bit. I’m still fiery but not overly fiery like I used to be. The first couple years i was probably a little bit rough actually. I had a great understanding for the game but maybe not an understanding for all the kids, whereas now I feel I understand the kids, the game, how the referees work. I feel the refs respect me, so they’re not as quick to give me a yellow card if I step out of line.”
Riggs says South soccer made a positive impact far beyond the field.
“The success of Joe’s soccer program has been a definite booster for school pride and community respect. The success helped put South back on the map and recognized again in the Omaha community.”
Maass, whose roots are in that neighborhood, says, “The sense of community that came back to South Omaha is just amazing to me.”
Having built South to be an elite program and kept it there, Maass is not sure which feat is more difficult.
“It was really hard to get there but it’s hard to stay on top though because more kids are playing the sport now and other schools are starting to mirror the things we’ve done.”
Of all the achievements South’s attained, including district and metro crowns and records for most goals scored and most shutouts recorded in a single season, the 2013 state title stands out.
“Winning a championship at South after they hadn’t won one in years was big. It felt great to feel our program was on top of the world.”
Championships and records are nice, he says, “but at the end of the day” it’s the relationships he forges with “the kids” and following their life pursuits that matter most to him.
“I see them out in the community. It’s interesting to see where they end up. I hope in some way I’ve impacted these kids. That by far outweighs everything else.”
Just like the team’s Twitter page tag line reads, “We are a family, friends and a team with one big heart.. Packers.”