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.
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