Youth Ultimate has since become a major priority, and we now see the growth of this level as critical to the future of the sport. Some of the many advantages to having a strong Youth Division in our Ultimate community include exposing future generations to the sport even before they reach college and beyond, improving the (already rising) talent level of our Ultimate community, ensuring a legacy of growth and development for the local clubs and leagues, and improving the prospects of parents, school administrations, and sponsors getting involved in the sport at the administrative level.
Prior to Nebraskionals, countless hours of hard work was put in, mostly by LUDA Commissioner Seth Colaner, to get the ball rolling for the Youth Division. Contacts were made with local high school teachers, administrators, and students to determine the possible level of interest at certain schools. Lengthy discussions were held with representatives of the UPA to help Nebraska jump into the pool with many other states who have thriving high school programs. Seth took on the role of State Youth Coordinator for Nebraska, as recognized by the UPA. Seth brought in an official instructor from the UPA to help over a dozen of our local Ultimate leaders to become certified coaches. And finally, Seth put together Nebraskionals, which included Tim Hoarty as tournament director. Nebraskionals was necessary not just for the local spectacle of a youth tournament, but was also a prerequisite for having a high school team from Nebraska to be eligible for a national/regional High School Championship tournament beginning in 2011. Furthermore, the UPA was so encouraged and excited to see the work Seth was putting into the Youth Division that they allowed Nebraska youth players to be eligible to put together a team for the Youth Club Championships tournament this year.
The other major development at the youth level was the formation of “Sweet Justice,” an actual team from Westside High School in Omaha. The pick-up scene in Omaha, and at Westside in particular has been active for several years and has spawned some of the great talent that we now see among Rigor Mortis (Omaha’s premier club team) as well as the college teams from UNL (Cornfed) and UNO. With the encouragement of the local community, the support and experience of their older friends (and siblings), and last but not least, the initiative of Sweet Justice’s current leadership base (especially the mature-beyond-his-years Sean Rock), an actual team was formed with visions of traveling to real tournaments for competition.
Many of us first saw Sweet Justice up close and personal at Cornfed’s Children of the Corn tournament in October 2009. SJ came out and competed with established club and college teams, and even beat a couple of visiting college teams. SJ has since traveled to a few other tournaments and won their fair share of games. At one point, the UPA’s ranking algorithm had SJ ranked in the top 10 of all high school teams in the country based on the strength of their victories and competition. In January 2010, over 50 people showed up to support Sweet Justice in a fundraising hat tournament in the snow and ice. SJ was the subject of quality media coverage and secured an invite from the UPA to the previously mentioned Youth Club Championships. Unfortunately, SJ was unable to make the trip. But at that point, we all knew that something special was brewing within the Youth Division, Nebraska had a model team to base other high school programs on, and the entire community was showing support to Sweet Justice for what they were doing and showing.
For the first Nebraskionals, simply getting an official high school tournament off the ground and into the books was the most important hurdle, and it turned into a fantastic day. In addition to Sweet Justice, teams representing Omaha Central High School (the Barefoot Bandits) and Lincoln’s Pius X High School also took the field. These schools have enjoyed pick-up activities for a few years also, and several alums from Central and Pius are among some of the more talented club, college, and league players in Omaha and Lincoln to this day. A large, supportive crowd from the local community turned out to see the action and be part of this historic event, and the players did not disappoint. From the first pull to the last point, the competition at Nebraskionals was more intense and more exciting than any of us could have imagined.
The format for only three teams meant that one game could be played at a time, and the drama was drawn out until the end. Sweet Justice took the field against Pius, taking an early lead, until Pius came back late in the first half. The game was neck and neck throughout, with Pius taking a surprising victory at the end. In the second game, the Barefoot Bandits debuted against Pius with another back-and-forth game. The Bandits pulled away at the end for the victory. Sweet Justice came back on against the Barefoot Bandits with the championship still up in the air. In the case of all three teams ending with a 1-1 record, the tiebreaker would have been the total point differential, and the games had been very close so far. As it turned out, the Barefoot Bandits took the game from SJ, in another barn-burner. The Bandits were Nebraska’s first State High School Champions!
Now, as a visionary for the development of Nebraska Ultimate, I personally did not look at the games with a rooting interest other than to hope that a lot of young talent would shine from all teams. And boy, oh boy did that talent shine. The brand of Ultimate on the field at Nebraskionals was among the most exciting I have ever seen, at any level. Watching these kids fly through the air, lay out early and often, and blaze across the field was a sight to behold. These kids did things that some of us older players can barely fathom anymore, and it made me smile thinking about the amazing talent on the field and the bright future they represented for the sport.
At the end of the day, while many of us had seen Sweet Justice play before, most of us had never seen Pius or Central put an organized team on the field. Everyone was pleasantly surprised to see such performances, and seeing that action on the field made the LUDA Commissioners downright giddy for the potential at the high school level, now knowing how much talent is actually available that has not even been developed yet.
This is just the beginning, folks!
I know the Sweet Justice is disappointed with the results of the day. However, these guys have nothing to be sorry for. Make no mistake, SJ is a legitimate, Nationals-level team, and they remain the model for what we want to see out of high school programs in Nebraska not only in terms of talent, but also in terms of organization, leadership, and commitment. Seeing what Omaha Central and Lincoln Pius brought to the table only means that there is that much more potential in the community. In the coming year, we will continue to grow the Youth Division in Nebraska, to include youth leagues, coaching clinics, and more tournament opportunities. At Nebraskionals 2011, we fully expect to have several more high school programs available to play. And the top team in 2011 will have an opportunity to play at the next level against other state champions in a UPA Tournament.
To the seniors of Sweet Justice, Barefoot Bandits, and Pius, I encourage you to stay involved with the local Ultimate community. Like it or not, these teams you have been a part of are now part of your legacy. The existing community provides a tight support structure which will allow you to continue your development as a player and as a leader. There are leagues, clubs, and college teams readily available. Furthermore, any leadership role is yours for the taking. The community has a great need for more leaders and volunteers. You can continue to play a vital role in the overall Ultimate community and further support/teach your former teams. If, for some reason, your post-HS plans include leaving the state, keep playing and learning wherever you go!
To the players who will return to their high school teams next year, keep it going, baby. Develop your skills, network with the existing community, and become a leader. At Nebraskionals 2010, you were part of history. A bright future exists for local Ultimate, please continue to be a part of it!
For anyone else who is reading this who is excited at what the future holds for Nebraska Ultimate, please continue to encourage the growth of the Youth Division. There are players and pick-up groups from other high schools in the area who haven’t formed an actual team yet, maybe even your former high school needs help. Let’s get parents, teachers, and current community leaders to take action. Become a leader yourself and volunteer your efforts. Let’s keep growing this thing and build not only our current Ultimate community into something bigger and better, but also our legacy for the good of the sport in years to come!
Congratulations to the teams who played brilliantly in the first Nebraskionals, and many kudos to Seth Colaner, Tim Hoarty, and the high school captains for putting this together!