• Flashback: See coverage from the inaugural state tournament
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Bill Cunningham walked out with his Millard North boys soccer team for the first game it ever played at Morrison Stadium and absorbed the atmosphere.
The grass beneath his feet was pristine.
The backdrop of downtown Omaha almost perfect.
The lights were on, the sun was going down and Cunningham felt a certain something in the air.
“I just remember kind of turning around and looking at the crowd and the whole setting, and I just felt like that guy in ‘Field of Dreams,' ” Cunningham said. “From where I started on this ride to that moment, it was just phenomenal change.”
People like Cunningham and Omaha Skutt girls coach John Carlson remember standing on the other side of the field.
Cunningham never had anything like this as a student at Omaha Creighton Prep in the 1970s. It was still hard to foresee when he was coaching at Omaha Roncalli in the 1980s, even though signs were pointing toward soccer possibly becoming a sanctioned high school sport in Nebraska.
Carlson had played at Omaha Central in the early 1980s when the Eagles had only a club team — organized by a biology teacher, coached by a Creighton University student and outfitted with uniforms only by the generosity of a parent.
“There's not a player from our generation who doesn't go to Morrison Stadium and watch the state soccer tournament and not think about those days and how far it's all come,” Carlson said. “I see old soccer friends and they say the same thing: ‘Do you believe this?' ”
But that special Cunningham memory is from 2005, the first year Morrison Stadium was used for any state tournament games. Carlson's memories have gotten better and better since 2008, when the NSAA moved the full slate of games to the picturesque 6,000-seat facility on the Creighton campus.
But the coaches haven't forgotten the growing pains for high school soccer in Nebraska, which begins its 25th state tournament Wednesday.
The Nebraska School Activities Association first sanctioned soccer in 1988. Acceptance was slow, and its arrival actually invited more darts to be thrown its way.
“Once it was sanctioned, people had something physical to be critical of,” said Dennis Beckman, the former Omaha Bryan coach now at Plattsmouth. “Before, it was kind of in the closet. Now it was out there ... open for criticism, taking kids (from other sports).
“There were passionate extremes on both sides. Some people wanted to see it die a quick death, which it could have.”
Today Nebraska prep soccer features two classes, 128 total boys and girls teams and 5,000 participants.
Early on, though, schools scrambled to find qualified coaches. Kids to play. Places to play.
“Even the refereeing was bad early on, because people who grew up with different sports were trying to referee a sport that they had no idea about,” Beckman said. “Some of these things made it a challenging scenario, and it inhibited the growth of soccer for a number of years.”
The first rosters were constructed from school club team players, students playing in select leagues and any other athletes coaches could find. Cunningham said to get his Roncalli girls program up and running, he was out scouting Crimson Pride volleyball and basketball games.
Some of those who were skilled and experienced at the game, meanwhile, were limited by the smaller, non-regulation width and length of many fields.
“Soccer then was basically the biggest athletes kicked the ball down the field,” said Omaha South boys coach Joe Maass, who played his last season at Omaha Bryan in 1992. “The players that play now would destroy the teams from back then. The schools back then would just go get the good athletes, like the football players that ran track.”
As more schools added the sport, longtime referee Doug Epps said, it took them several seasons to get good at it.
“Some of them didn't know the rules of the game. It was bad,” said Epps, the Nebraska rules interpreter for high schools and a current member of the NFHS national rules committee. “The knowledge of the coaches, and even the players, has increased hundredfold.”
Along the way, Epps said, Nebraska has caught up to states such as Missouri that officially have had high school soccer for longer.
“I'd go to regionals before and I'd think Nebraska is really hurting,” Epps said. “We're competitive now.”
Before 1988, club teams played for the Zenon Cup (boys) and Hoover Cup (girls), and play was run and monitored by the now-defunct Nebraska High School Soccer Association. Carlson said the “state tournament” was actually well run, albeit with crowds made up mostly of family and friends who were interested enough to come watch.
Still, Cunningham said, the push continued to add soccer as a sanctioned sport. Organizers of the club teams invited Omaha Public Schools officials to meetings. People with clout kept knocking on the NSAA's door.
Cunningham said there weren't enough people in position to make decisions who knew or appreciated the sport; they didn't grow up around it and found it hard to imagine why people might want it sanctioned.
Others worried about protecting both track and the state track meet. And although fall is the ideal season for soccer, that would be a casualty of compromise: nobody wanted to mess with football and the availability of fields.
“But the reasons for ‘We can't do this' kept getting addressed,” Cunningham said, “and melted away one by one.”
How long was the wait?
The roots of high school soccer in Nebraska can be traced to the mid-1960s, when Paul Bangura started an in-house program at Omaha Creighton Prep. Bangura in following years picked up Holy Name, Omaha Rummel (Roncalli) and Omaha Brownell-Talbot in what became the Omaha High School Soccer Association.
The Zenon Cup was established in the mid-1970s as other schools added club teams. The Hoover Cup followed a few years later.
With some momentum, Bangura said people like former NSAA Executive Director Jim Riley saw it was time, and the process was helped by a number of parents and prominent individuals who never stopped pushing.
While some worried about the negative effect on other spring sports, Bangura said, others preferred to look at opportunities being created for boys or girls who might not be cut out for baseball, track, tennis or golf.
“I would say it should have happened sooner,” said Bangura, an assistant coach at Omaha Skutt since leaving Creighton Prep in 1996. “There were too many people that were opposed to it.”
Bangura said it was inevitable that the level of play, coaching and officiating would be subpar at first. As those developed and progressed, he said, schools started to do their part by creating soccer fields or making their football fields adjustable to soccer dimensions.
In more recent seasons, the face of the game also changed with a heavier influx of Latino players in communities such as South Sioux City, Lexington, Schuyler and Grand Island.
At Omaha South, Latino players energized a soccer program that Maass said had nothing going for it when he took over in 2000.
“When I first came to South, I had 11 players on my team,” Maass said. “Now we have over 100 kids try out. It didn't seem like when I played in 1992 there were any Latino players at all.”
Not long after Maass finished playing for Beckman at Bryan, however, Beckman said he had a Bears team that featured players from eight countries, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bosnia, Chile and Uruguay.
“Those were the kids who were one-sport people from one-sport cultures,” Beckman said.
Players from across Nebraska come together again starting this week with six days of games at Morrison Stadium. Total attendance again will likely be in the 20,000 range after hitting 20,190 in 2011 and a record 21,801 in 2010.
The first state tournament at Bryan Stadium and Ralston drew a combined 4,700 fans, and afterward former Omaha Westside coach Bruce Skinner said: “We're finally getting the state recognition we felt we deserved.”
Only 27 schools offered soccer that first year (with just more than 50 teams), but it was a start. Those numbers would jump to 46 schools by the 10th season and two classes by 1997.
“Just getting it sanctioned was a big step,” Carlson said. “Now schools get behind soccer. Once you got schools behind it, it helped in growing the game.”
Although Cunningham thought sanctioning was inevitable, he called it the “seal of approval” that the sport needed when it happened for the 1988 season. It encouraged other schools to get on board. Slowly, some of the old-school thinking that it was a “foreign sport” gave way to that acceptance that it was here to stay.
“Soccer was not a tremendously popular sport at that time,” said Beckman, who submerged himself into learning the game after being one of those reluctant first coaches. “I understand, because I didn't want anything to do with it until I was actually involved with it.”
Maass will return this week with his South High team. And he can relate to that shiver that Cunningham and Carlson have described as another former player who witnessed soccer's progress.
“People outside of the soccer community,” Maass said, “I don't think they ever visualized it growing to what it is now.”
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