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.
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