Week one of March Madness was full of plenty of thrills, excitement and surprises. Honestly, who among us thought Crofton would fall in the opening round to an eighth seed after winning five-straight state titles?
Now moving on to week two, the boys are setting up to take the floor. While the girls tournament featured plenty of recent experience from the Local County News area, the boys tournament features a couple of teams that haven’t been to Lincoln nearly as often.
Neligh-Oakdale - The Warriors are off to their first tournament since 1991. The team lacks a true center, although 6-0 Chris Bentley rarely has a problem banging around down low with “true centers,” they more than make up for it with athleticism and strong defense. They are led offensively by three 1,000-point scorers in Grant White, Tyson Belitz and Alex Kerkman. Bentley and Austin Rice are rebounding machines and are both athletic enough to guard most big men. They kick off their first title hunt in 26 years at 3:45 p.m. against Amherst at Lincoln Southeast.
O’Neill - The Eagles are on their way to a second-straight state tournament after not qualifying in almost two decades. Many of the core players from their state championship football squad took to the court this year and they continued to dominate, losing just two games all year. Tyler Regan leads O’Neill in scoring on the year with 13 points a game, but Alex Thramer and Justin Appleby are both capable of taking over games as well, each scoring in double figures on the season. The entire O’Neill squad has great length and will give team fits all tournament. They kick off the tournament against Bishop Neumann at 2 p.m. at the Devaney Center.
Riverside - The Chargers have been just as dominant on the basketball court as the have the gridiron since their inaugural season. This year, they boast an incredible scoring attack, averaging 70.5 points a game. They are led by two scorers averaging at least 20 points a game in Noah Valasek and Tredyn Prososki. Few teams can make it rain from 3 like the Chargers as they have hit 233 treys on the year. They have finished third each of the past two seasons, but this year likely could be their year. They kick off their title hunt against Garden County at Lincoln Southeast. Tip off will be bright and early at 9 a.m.
Working at the state wrestling meet certainly gives you a different perspective than simply attending as a fan. I learned that for the first time this year.
I spent a lot of time on the floor, surrounded by the crowd, up close to the action. I spent time in the tunnel, seeing the intense emotion that the wrestlers dealt with, both good and bad. Every competitor there spent the past three months or more cutting weight, practicing and battling with every opponent just to earn a spot at the meet with the goal of returning home with a gold medal around their neck.
For most, that dream was crushed. Just 56 wrestlers realized that dream of being the champion. However, one thing I learned was that state wrestling defines champions in other ways than just the color of the medal around their neck.
No other wrestler exemplified that more than West Holt’s Jake Judge.
Most, if not all, of the folks reading this have heard his story. In case you hadn’t, let me give you the Cliff Notes version. In the championship match of his district meet the week before state, Judge was accused of biting his opponent and was disqualified, subsequently disqualifying him from the state meet, despite finishing among the top four in his district. After an appeal from the West Holt administration and staff, Judge was graciously reinstated by the NSAA a few days later.
On Thursday, he hit the mat like a man possessed. He won his two bouts fairly easily. He looked to be poised to make a run at the finals until he ran into Cole Aschoff, who knocked Judge out of contention. Fortunately, he rebounded and finished third at 145 pounds.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jake afterward. The full conversation will be released in a story soon enough, but I don’t think I can do real justice to him and his outlook on the whole situation. I talk to young athletes on a regular basis and many of them are very gracious and humble kids. However, Judge absolutely blew me away.
Here was a young man who nearly had everything he worked for taken away from him in his senior year. He had every opportunity to be spiteful and bitter, especially after watching the same wrestler that he was disqualified against win the state championship. He could have joined in the loudest chorus of boos I have ever seen an individual high schooler receive in competition. He could have at least frowned.
Judge did none of those things. He was simply grateful for the opportunity he was given. He had a natural smile on his face before, during and after every match at state. He actually admitted to me that he really isn’t very good at not smiling. He made a point to compliment each of his opponents at the meet. He knew that each one of those kids had earned the right to be there, just as he had, through their hard work and dedication, and he appreciated that, no matter who came out on top.
He was a bit of a celebrity at the meet, as his story had clearly made it’s way across the state. Many people saw the video of the alleged biting incident on Facebook and formulated their opinion. He had folks cheering his name from all corners of the arena, many of whom he admitted he had never met before. That could have made his head swell a bit. However, he simply thought it was neat and admitted it was a bit strange.
The most incredible moment, however, came during the medal ceremony. Jake took the stand along with five other medalists. One of those wrestlers ended his chance for a state championship the day before. One nearly ended it a week before. At a time that many other wrestlers were posing for pictures with their new swag, Jake kept being Jake.
He applauded when the sixth-place finisher was given his medal. Then the fifth and fourth-place finishers. He took his medal with a smile. Then he applauded Aschoff when he got his runner-up medal. When the championship medal was given out - to the same wrestler who nearly ended his season a week too early - Judge didn’t change his attitude one bit. He smiled, clapped and then stepped off the stand and shook each competitor’s hand.
He didn’t hold a visible grudge. Despite all he had gone through that week - the highs and the lows - he stuck to his morals. He continued to be the humble, grateful young man he has been all season long. When many other wrestlers are understandably dealing with anger, sadness or pride, Judge stayed humble. He was an example of how young athletes should handle adversity.
Heck, he was an example of how many of us adults should handle adversity. He didn’t let it set him back, change his morals or grow spiteful. He stayed Jake. He was one of the truest champions of the meet.
Good for you, Jake.
There are many strong athletic conferences across the state this year. However, I think it is pretty safe to say, at least among the Class C and D levels, that few are deeper then the Niobrara Valley Conference.
From top to bottom, the conference is full of talented squads. With the Niobrara Valley Conference kicking off this week, that is even more evident.
Lets start on the girls side of things. Elgin Public/Pope John and Elkhorn Valley have been incredible successful all season long. However, entering the tournament, they were seeded fourth and seventh, respectively. It is incredible to me to think that there are three teams in the entire state better than the Wolfpack, let alone in the conference. That shows just how good teams like St. Mary’s, the top seed, Chambers/Wheeler Central and North Central are.
The Wolfpack have been as dominant as any team this season, averaging 55 points a game while holding opponents to just 36 each night. They have lost just twice. Yet, the Cardinals, Renegades and Knights all have done just as good.
Elkhorn Valley has been one of the few teams that have shown the ability to take the Wolfpack to the wire. Yet, in their first-round showdown with Ewing, they were taken to the wire as well, needing two overtimes to beat the Tigers. They are led by arguably the most talented sophomore trio in the class, regardless of sport, in Sierra Rystrom, Amber Miller and Hannah Ollendick. When those three get clicking, they can beat anyone on any given night.
On the boys side, one can look at Neligh-Oakdale’s talented squad and understandably consider them a top team in the state. However, they entered the tournament as the three seed behind Boyd County and CWC, a squad that was upset by an underrated West Holt team on Monday night. The scoring abilities of Tyson Belitz, Grant White and Alex Kerkman combined with the inside presence of Chris Bentley and Austin Rice is unmatched in the class. However, they still were taken to the wire by an incredibly gifted Niobrara/Verdigre team that was given the sixth seed. In any other conference, the Cougars, who in my opinion have one of the best mixtures of post players and back court players in Northeast Nebraska, would have been a top-two seed.
All of that considered, that is just the top half of the bracket. Clearwater-Orchard’s girls have had a roller coaster year simply because they play in such a tough conference. Kinzly Macke and Kylie Thiele have led an incredibly resilient squad this year and they were barely able to sneak away from Stuart on Saturday to open tournament play. When teams with players like Macke and Thiele or Harlee Fischer and Trisha Fox of Stuart are ranked as the 8th and 9th best teams in the conference, you know you are stacked.
Neligh-Oakdale’s girls are led by senior Kinsley Klabenes and speedster Bailey Frey. Yet, it seems like a different girl is able to step up every night and help push the Warrior’s opponents to the limit, despite their record.
Lets not forget about the O-C boys as well, who were ranked 11th in the field and nearly came away with an upset of Niobrara/Verdigre in the first round. The talented team is young but is ready to pull of a shocker on any given night thanks to the talents of Travis Kerkman, Jacob Long, Chris Lester, Liam Odell and Blake Hoke.
EPPJ’s boys are another young team that seems to show improvement every time they step on the court. They are led by big man Kenny Bush and the athletic Chad Bode. However, the heart of the team is the underclassmen that seem to grow weekly. Ashton Evans is a sharpshooter, as is Hunter Reestman.
Elkhorn Valley is the 13th seed on the boys side, yet they are another team that can beat you on any given night. They have more double-doubles than any other team in Antelope County. Brayden Effle and Kalen Dittrich are rebounding machines, while players like Tucker Hecht and Austin Miller guide an offense that, when they are hot, can score in bunches.
The first round knocked out quite a few area teams and many more will see their dreams of a conference championship dashed on the way to Saturday’s championship games. However, not a single team should feel shame for competing the way they do against a conference like the NVC.
Alright everyone, show of hands. Who is a lifelong Atlanta Falcons fan and is expecting them to win the Super Bowl next weekend?
Just me. I should have known.
I would be shocked if there were too many of you who are as excited as I am about Atlanta being in their first Super Bowl in nearly two decades.
This past weekend was a bit tough for me because I am admittedly a fan of two teams, Atlanta and Green Bay. My old man is a huge Packers fan and still likes to talk a little smack when the two teams get together.
When Green Bay lost to the Broncos in the Super Bowl, I immediately cheered for anyone that played against Denver. The next season, that happened to be Atlanta. I slowly started paying more attention to the Falcons then. A few years later, they landed one of the most electric football players of the last 20 years, Michael Vick. The moment he stepped onto the field, I was hooked. The Falcons quickly became my team and I never wavered, despite some truly mediocre seasons since that whole Vick-going-to-jail thing.
Atlanta has come close to returning to the big game a few times, always choking it away. I was nervous they would do so again this past weekend against the great Aaron Rodgers - in my opinion the most fun quarterback to watch since, well, Vick. Fortunately, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones had other plans and the Falcons blew out the Packers on the way to the big game. Now they are just one win away from the team’s first-ever Lombardi Trophy.
The only thing that stands in the way? The evil empire. The New England Patriots.
You may have heard that Star Wars comparison a time or two, but just in case, let me break it down for you. Bill Belichick is like the emperor. He’s the brains of the operation. He is behind the chess game each and every weekend, never stepping onto the field of battle himself. Darth Vader is obviously Tom Brady. He carries out Belichick’s every wish without hesitation and helps the empire, err, Patriots, continue their dominance of football. The rest of the team is a bunch of storm troopers, none of which will entirely scare you as individual players, but they all help carry out the team’s plan. Unfortunately for the NFL, the Patriots players have a bit better success rate than the storm troopers do.
Alright, now coming back from my corny, nerdy moment there, lets talk about what to expect. Despite being led by Tom Brady, the strength of the Patriots is actually their defense. They are the top scoring defense in the league, allowing just 15.6 points per game. The Falcons, on the other hand, are the top scoring offense in the league, scoring 33.8 points each game. Jones gives Ryan a much deadlier weapon than anything Brady has in his arsenal. However, the Patriots do have much more depth to work with.
One advantage the Falcons do have overall, in my opinion, is team speed. The Patriots haven’t often been a team that will outrun you on a regular basis. However, speed is one of the main reason the Falcons beat the Packers so thoroughly. The pass defense is hit-or-miss for Atlanta, but they have played much better as of late, and part of that is thanks to the ability of their speedy front seven to disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The x-factor may just be the speediest of all that front seven, Vic Beasley, the league leader in sacks this year. If he can beat up the Patriots’ line and keep Brady on the run, it could mean big things for Atlanta.
Now, I’m going to put my prediction in stone. It won’t be a popular one, especially at the office.
Atlanta, 30. New England, 27.
This time of year, I always feel a bit more motivated then usual. It’s a habit now.
It’s not because of a resolution I’ve tied myself to and certainly not because I’m excited for the cold weather. Believe me, I hate the cold.
It’s because I’m still used to this time of year being pre-season. Not for baseball or track, but for semi-pro football. In fact, my former team actually held tryouts this past weekend. This is the first year in five years - despite eventually not playing last year - that I am not working to get ready for the tryout, but I still can feel that same motivation kicking in.
I am always fielding questions from people outside of what I call the “semi-pro world” about what that means. Well let’s take a little walk down memory lane.
Semi-pro really is its own little world. Once you are involved, you unintentionally become a part of a community that extends all across the country. I’ve met some incredible people, coaches and athletes in my short time in the world.
Semi-pro is almost always played in the spring. Why? I don’t know. That’s just how it has always been. I’m sure there was a reason, but I didn’t mind. Like I said, I hate the cold. When the turf is steaming because the temperature is more than 100 degrees in a late June game, cold is not an issue.
Semi-pro is a very general term anymore, too, because there are so many layers to it. There are players that are paid and others who are not. There are 8-man, 11-man, indoor, women’s and women’s indoor football leagues. The rules and talent level changes across all different levels. There are some leagues that are certainly a bit more professional and organized than others.
There are some athletes with aspirations of a college scholarship or a pro contract. There are some who simply are looking to run around and hit someone. One thing is consistent about semi-pro, however. Every single athlete simply stays involved because they love the game of football.
I’ve heard people say before that semi-pro is “one step above Al Bundy’s glory days in high school.” Well, that’s not entirely wrong. It’s not hard to get involved. Some teams don’t even make practice mandatory - those teams don’t often do too well. For me, I played a bit of rugby in college and wanted to see what I could do on a football field against grown men. So I got the contact info from an old friend, called the coach and made my way to Omaha to play.
When I got there, I saw kids fresh out of high school and men pushing 50 years old running around. I played with and against former top-baseball-prospects-turned-football players, former college all-Americans at various levels, former NFL prospects and all-state athletes. Some guys took it seriously and hit the weight room every day. Others spent more time at the closest Hu-Hot. However, for the most part, despite their professional potential or lack thereof, there were two things that were consistent among almost all players. They were proud athletes and they were going to be your best friends regardless of what went down on the field.
My first season, I learned both lessons pretty quick. In the first live-contact practice we held, I filled in at running back for a few plays. I had a couple of solid runs and was feeling good. One guy, a safety that had been one of my biggest mentors in my first few weeks I was with the team, didn’t take too kindly to that. The very next play, I took the ball up the middle and he split me in half. I don’t know if I ever even got hit so hard in a rugby match. I sat out the next few plays to catch my breath.
Some people may not be aware, but this area was pretty privileged with a solid semi-pro team for many years up until recently. The Nebraska Lawdawgs represented Norfolk for a few years, as did the Norfolk Thunderbirds before them. Unfortunately, as is the case with too many teams after a few years, participation dwindled and costs grew too large and both squads went under.
However, do yourself a favor. If you’ve never seen semi-pro, take the time to find a game and watch one. Travel down to Kearney, over to Sioux City or down to Omaha. You’ll find some top-flight arena squads in Grand Island, Sioux City and Omaha if you prefer that.
When you get to a game, you may see some smaller players or players that need to run a bit more, it may seem a bit disorganized and you won’t see many guys that are going to be in the NFL’s Pro Bowl anytime soon. I acknowledge that there are many teams that fit that exact description. However, you’ll see some of the most entertaining football of your life. Not because they are all super athletes, but because there are few people that simply want to play, hit and give the effort that you will see of these guys.
I could really go on forever, as it all goes much deeper than what I’ve given you. But now you have a small look at the life a semi-pro football player.
I still get the urge to get out and play all the time, especially this time of year. Maybe one day, the area will field another team and I can get back out, hopefully joined by a few of you. At least I can hope.
As an old friend recently told me about wanting to get back onto the field, “That’s the tough part, that itch never goes away.”
During the fall sports season, I dove into the some stats for local athletes. I found it to be an interesting exercise and, now that we are halfway through the winter sports season, I thought we should take a look at the stats again.
I took a trip to maxpreps.com, the website that the NSAA uses to track their stats. I took a look at the statistical leaders for Nebraska. I didn’t discriminate against the classes, making it more impressive that these athletes are among the leaders.
Now, as a disclaimer, it is important to note that it is on the coaches of each team to enter the stats after every game. Some coaches do, while others simply keep them for their own use. Therefore, while there may be some players missing, that doesn’t take anything away from the impressive seasons these players have put together.
There were so many area athletes among the statistical leaders that I actually don’t even have enough room to talk about the teams among the leaders. There are some incredibly high-scoring teams in the area and some top rebounding teams, but you’ll just have to guess who that is.
Now, for some of the more impressive statistics I found.
St. Edward’s Jonah Micek is one of the top 10 scorers per game, ranking sixth with 22.9 points per game. Not to be outdone, Riverside freshman phenom Tredyn Prososki ranks seventh in the state with 82 made field goals this year. 49 of those 82 shots have come from behind the 3-point line, best in the entire state. Fellow Charger Riley Swerczek has also been a sharpshooter this year, ranking fourth with 36 made threes.
On the girls side, Chambers/Wheeler Central star Jacie Laetsch ranks sixth with 19.9 points per game while Bloomfield’s Sarah Castaneda has scored an incredible 20.6 points per game, good for fourth in the state. Castaneda has hit 92 total shots this year, good for second in the entire state.
Castaneda is more than just a scorer, however. She also does a lot of work for the Bees under the rim, pulling in 116 rebounds. That number is the fifth best among all girls.
In my opinion, the biggest key to a strong team is a guy that can dish out the assists at a high rate. Riverside has just that in Noah Valasek. He ranks second in the state with an incredible 6.8 assists per game. On the girls side, Elgin Public/Pope John’s Baylee Wemhoff has been excellent on the dish, averaging 4.8 assists per game to rank eighth.
Remember Castaneda? Well it has already been noted how good she is at both scoring and rebounding. So it should come as no surprise that she ranks third in the state with six double-doubles on the year.
The only thing cooler than a double-double? A triple-double. Niobrara/Verdigre’s Riley Bickerstaff is one of just three boys in the entire state to record one this year. He did so December 19 against Wausa when he scored 13, pulled in 11 rebounds and dished out 10 assists.
Now the leaders are in a very competitive position. The top 10 changes on a nearly daily basis. Therefore, it is important to note that there is a bevy of athletes just outside of the top 10, such as Neligh-Oakdale’s Tyson Belitz and Grant White - in nearly every category. Santee’s Stevie Peters is just barely outside of the top scorers in the state, CWC’s Regan Dierks just barely missed today’s cut in rebounds per game and Elkhorn Valley’s Brayden Effle is just outside of the top players in total rebounds.
Now, for all you wrestling fans, don’t forget how incredible the wrestlers have been this year. More on that at a later time.
As you may have noticed by now, there is a bit of a theme for this week throughout The Orchard News.
As is the case with many people, the final week of the year is a time to reflect back on the previous 51 weeks. It’s a great time to look back and remember some of the better memories of the year and maybe even think back on a few things you’d rather not repeat.
Just like anyone else, now is a great time to look back and reflect for me as well. Personally, it has been a bit of a whirlwind year, what with moving to a new town, starting a new career and getting married. However, I don’t want to dwell on that too much here, as great as its been. If you want to hear more, stop in sometime and we can chat.
What I want to focus on is just how great it has been this year for Antelope County athletics. I know I missed a lot at the beginning of the year since I didn’t join the area until May. I missed some Cyclone records being broken in January, many state wrestling medalists in February and the Cyclone powerlifters performing well at the state meet in March. In April, more school records fell for Clearwater-Orchard, this time in track with Jagger Smith and Brooklynn Chipps.
In May, I showed up just in time to see 25 Antelope County athletes qualify for the state track meet. The state meet is always a great way to end the school year. It is one of the most well-run state championship events the NSAA puts on every year. The atmosphere is always fantastic and, for the medalists at least, it ends the year in championship fashion.
In June, things slow down a bit in the sports world. That is, unless you are like the Belitz family and have four kids playing baseball or softball at one time. Then it stays a bit busy. June is also the time for all-star games, and Antelope County was not lacking for outgoing senior all-stars. Few players had as good of an all-star season as Andy Kerkman, who earned top individual honors at two seperate games.
In July, baseball season really heated up when Neligh hosted district play. Clearwater-Orchard decided it was the right time to co-op middle school sports, except football, with Ewing. Cyclone powerlifters once again proved they were among the best at the Cornhusker State Games.
In August, I got a bit too excited as we drew closer to fall sports season. I couldn’t have imagined just how well area schools would do by the time November rolled around.
In September, we were interrupted by two fellas taking cops on a high-speed chase through the county. That’s not sports related, I know, but I’m still bitter those smiley guys caused me to come in on my day off. Back on topic, it was also homecoming season. Few weeks are as exciting for high school athletes as homecoming week.
In October, Neligh-Oakdale completed one of the most dominating football seasons in recent memory, despite not being able to finish it in the playoffs. In their place, the Cyclones went to their eighth playoff in nine seasons.
In November, Elgin Public/Pope John did something no Elgin squad had ever done, win a game at the state volleyball tournament. They went on to finish third, capping the best season in school history.
December hit and it was time for winter sports. The Wolfpack girls’ dominance rolled over to basketball, as did the Neligh-Oakdale boys. Elkhorn Valley looks once again like a state wrestling team title contender. The seasons are still young, but I feel confident that we’ll have plenty to cheer for come tournament time.
I hope you all have enjoyed the increased coverage among county sports and thank you for rolling with all the changes we have made to give you a better sports section. Thank you also for taking the time to read this column each week.
College football fans are seeing a strange trend starting to pop up during the bowl season.
Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU, two of the top running back prospects in this year’s draft class, announced that they are going to skip their respective teams’ bowl games in order to focus on the NFL draft process.
Now, there has been talk in the past, with Fournette and current Houston Texans player Jadeveon Clowney, that players who are surefire first-round picks should sit out entire seasons to avoid a costly injury that could hinder their draft status. I always took that as baseless speculation and almost as a joke. Now, however, players are actually doing it, not for a full season, but for the final game of their college careers. I have an issue with that.
My issue is twofold really. First of all, to sit out the game like this is to simply quit on your team. Secondly, the NFL is a job, and every single game should be treated as an interview. To skip a game is to skip an interview.
Teams work together all season to make it to the most prestigious bowls they can. They lift together in the winter, they train in the spring, they condition all summer and practice throughout the fall and in the season to be the most competitive team they can be. Suddenly, when they reach the final game of the year, these players just up and walk away from the team.
When you have a player as talented as McCaffrey or Fournette, they are automatically looked at as leaders, regardless of anything else. The young players come in and see these studs doing great things with their careers and use that as their motivation to get better. When the leader of the team just decides a few weeks out that they are going to sit out of the final game of their career, that shows a lack of concern for the good of the team.
To my second point, players need to think of each step in their football career as a promotion. Everything they did in high school was an audition for a position on a college football team. Likewise, everything they do during their college career is like a job interview for the NFL. When you are a highly-rated draft prospect, skipping the final game of your career is like working your tail off at an entry-level job for a couple of years, only to hide behind your desk and play games on your computer for the last month before interviewing for a position in management.
NFL teams will question this, just as any potential employer should. The league treats the players’ teammates and coaches as job references. Sure, their body of work over the past three or four years has been impressive, however, is their work ethic strong enough to keep up with the demands of playing at an elite level. They will ask the coaches and fellow players how they feel about their teammate leaving them high and dry in the bowl game, against some of the toughest competition they’ve faced all year. If any of those references come back poorly, it can and likely will affect the player’s draft stock.
The NFL is a highly competitive job offer. Less than two percent of all college athletes will make the cut. Players need to make themselves as marketable as possible, both on and off the field. That means they need to limit the amount of red flags that a team can find about them. Players like McCaffrey and Fournette will make it to the league no matter what, I know, but every potential hazard that a team sees can cause them to dig deeper, finding reasons to draft the player later, costing them major money and giving the team less reason to invest in the player’s future success.
I know there is a worry of the injury factor. Players saw Jaylon Smith, a potential top-five draft pick, suffer a terrible knee injury last bowl season that cost him his draft position and a good chunk of change on his paycheck. However, as a former athlete myself, I’m here to remind you that injuries are a hazard of the job. It is acknowledged from day one in your first peewee practice. In any given game, on any given play, you could break your arm or tear a muscle and ruin your entire career. Skipping one game is not going to improve your chances of avoiding the issue that much. Skipping that game does more to promote future athletes playing scared to avoid injuries than anything.
This is a trend that will take off if left without being addressed. We will see more and more players taking not just the bowl game, but other games they feel to be meaningless, off to preserve their draft stock. These players will have all the physical talent in the world and a good on-field resume, however, they won’t have what the teams want to see because it was promoted that it was alright to skip games to save themselves.
I’ve said before that there are many things that I find great about my job. One of the best is watching the success of the athletes I cover. Watching athletes reach goals is right up there with the best things I get to experience.
For example, this week, in case you hadn’t yet heard, Neligh-Oakdale’s Tyson Belitz joined teammate Grant White on Friday when he hit the 1,000 point mark for his career. Obviously it was a neat ordeal for Belitz, but even more fun was the excitement amongst his teammates, classmates and neighbors as he approached the mark.
It was obvious his teammates wanted him to reach 1,000 when they were talking about it on Twitter a few days before. Then on gameday, whether intentional or not, it seemed those teammates were making a point to put Tyson in position for good shots or clearing the lane for him to drive to the basket.
One thing that I had the chance to see from my vantage point was the excitement of the crowd. The student section had signs in support of Belitz and even a full-sized cutout of him. Throughout the game, leading up to his 1,000th point, they had cheers just for him. Everyone, with the exception of very few, in the crowd knew what was coming as he approached the mark and the atmosphere slowly grew stronger with each shot he made.
Another athlete that recently reached a major goal is actually one I didn’t have the privilege to cover in person. However, I have noticed the excitement around him from old friends and neighbors that still keep track of him and his career.
Ben Lingenfelter, a former Warrior who had to transfer to Cherokee, Iowa, accepted the offer that many young Nebraska athletes dream of getting. He announced on Monday that he would follow in the footsteps of many family members, including most recently his older brother, Luke, and walk on at the University of Nebraska to play football.
I’ve mentioned this a time or two before, but the dream of playing football for the Huskers is one that is almost engrained in any budding football player the moment they first step on the gridiron. I can’t even imagine how much that must mean for someone like Ben, who has seen his brother play for the Big Red and likely heard stories of his family’s playing days, to carry out that dream.
Ben is not only a big kid, but he is extremely athletic. I think a walk-on spot is perfect for a player like him, but I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to see him receive a scholarship offer from Nebraska too. As a matter of fact, I think the walk-on offer will help motivate him and lead to a better career for him, one that I predict will end with him on scholarship.
The number of people around Neligh that still follow Lingenfelter’s career says a lot about him, not only as a player, but as a person as well.
Congratulations once again to Tyson on reaching 1,000 points. It will be fun to see what your next step is. Congratulations to Ben on earning that coveted spot with the Huskers. I look forward to watching your career unfold as you continue to develop.
I know there are other athletes in our area that will be reaching goals that they set out to accomplish as freshmen, and I look forward to covering it when you hit those milestones. Good luck.
With the release of our inaugural All-Area team this week, I had originally planned on taking this chance to explain a bit about the team. I do hope that you enjoy the team and congratulate all those who made the cut. It was not the easiest task I’ve set forth on since I began this position, but it was certainly a blast. There were many great players and performances this year in each sport and it was fun to relive some of those moments from the players.
However, over the weekend, a couple things happened that got me thinking. I get asked quite often why I do what I do. To some people, to think as highly of sports as I do is a bit childish, something you have to let go of when you graduate high school. Obviously, I am inclined to disagree. I cover sports because I love sports.
I’m certainly not the only one that enjoys sports. Some people are casual sports fans, some are die-hard armchair coaches, some enjoy the sport enough to get involved as a coach, staff member, player or media member. I chose the latter two.
The point I’m slowly getting to is why we love sports. As I said earlier, two things happened that made me think about this. The first was Jack Johnson of Norfolk walking out with the team as an honorary scholarship player. The second, was a 55-year-old man in South Carolina playing in a college football game.
For those of you who haven’t heard, Jack Johnson is an eight-year-old boy from Norfolk. Jack has a genetic disorder called Menkes disease, a disease that affects his skeletal and muscular development. This disease prevents him from doing the one thing he wants to do more than anything, play football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Mike Riley and crew got wind of Jack’s issue and in turn decided to make his dream come true. They offered him an honorary scholarship for the team and gave him the full celebrity treatment. He had his own press conference, spoke with just about every media in the area and then became part of the team. He got his own jersey and pads, led the team in the pre-game prayer and then led the team out of the tunnel before joining the captains at midfield for the coin toss.
As for the 55-year-old man in South Carolina, his name is Joe Thomas, Sr. He is the father of a Green Bay Packers’ linebacker of the same name. On Saturday, he became the oldest known player to take a snap in an NCAA D1 football game.
Thomas, Sr. was a promising football player growing up, despite being partially deaf until he was 17, but was unable to play any further in his career. When he lost his job during the recession a few years back, he decided to pursue his degree. His son earned a spot on South Carolina State’s football team and they thought it would be fun to play together. Thomas, Sr., enrolled at the school and practiced on-and-off with the team over the next four years as a running back.
Finally, on senior day, Thomas, Sr. got his chance to make his dream of playing college football a reality, despite it being a year after his son leaving for the National Football League. The Bulldogs’ coaching staff inserted the 55-year-old man at running back and gave him the ball up the middle. He plowed forward for three yards.
Stories like Jack Johnson’s, Joe Thomas, Senior’s and the well-known story of Jack Hoffman’s among many, many others are a big part of the reason I love sports. Sports are fun to play, they are great entertainment and they give us something to talk about on Mondays, but most importantly, they give us memories. The memories Jack and Joe, Sr. made this weekend are ones that will stay with them forever. They are moments that fans and non-fans alike can always appreciate and the families of everyone involved will cherish forever.
That’s why I do what I do.
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