There's a word heard around Omaha South High a lot these days. And it's not “soccer.” Nor “champions.”
It's not “enrollment,” as in capped this year at 2,222 with some 160 incoming freshmen for next fall turned away.
It's not “scholarships,” as in more Buffett full-rides to college than distributed at any other Nebraska high school.
It's not stereotypes, as in the idea that you can't be both poor and successful.
No, the word you hear over and over at South seems to have nothing to do with the ascendency of an inner-city Omaha high school that has captured our attention and our hearts.
And yet maybe it has everything to do with what is happening as the school racks up wins on and off the soccer field.
Because the word said all the time at South, by everyone from Principal Cara Riggs to soccer hero Sayeg Moreno, is “family.”
Family, family, family.
A family of siblings born in Mexico, Omaha, Sudan and Thailand. A family of meatpackers, newcomers and pioneers. A family that shares in common the weariness of being an underdog all the time and the gratitude of finally sealing this public win, a psychological victory more than anything over Omaha Creighton Prep. Proof to the world that good things are happening on South 24th Street.
It may sound corny, this word “family,” this call to kumbaya.
But the imagery seems to be working here in this building of 2,222 students.
“Family” conjures up something bigger than the students themselves. You belong to family. You're responsible to family. You're in it, thick and thin, with family.
Says Moreno, who made a great save as goalkeeper in the record-busting game against Prep: “We support each other. We are one big family.”
Says Joey Zbylut-Birky, who runs both the attendance watchdog arm of South and its National Honor Society chapter: “They become very upset when people prejudge them. Omaha South is family.”
Says Principal Riggs to a packed gym at the soccer victory pep rally: “Hey, Packer family! When we have a family, we celebrate our accomplishments!”
Celebrate they did. Each of the 25 soccer players wearing a gold medal adorned with the Nebraska State Capitol, hefting (sort of embarrassingly, like they didn't want to appear to be bragging) three-foot-tall cut-out photographs of their faces, a lucky two holding aloft the prizes from battle: the state championship trophy and plaque.
The players wore mile-wide smiles and circled the gym, high-fiving their family of students and teachers. Queen — of course Queen — blared over the loudspeakers: “We... are the cham-pions ...”
A glance at the championship banners told about the drought. Most recent wins in football were in the 1950s. South last dominated wrestling in the 1960s. And gymnastics — the late 1970s and 1980s. The year 1990, posted on a basketball banner, sat there alone. Soccer, which never had a championship banner, has one now with the year 2013 painted on.
The event was succinct, ending as the three senior players who, with great fanfare, signed their letters of intent to play for Bellevue University.
Afterwards, students mobbed the players for photographs, and coach Joe Maass asked me to wait a minute while he locked up a bag of soccer balls.
Then Maass took me downstairs to see a room called the Hope Center.
It's a windowless place with lots of computers and desks and staff who speak languages other than English.
Maass didn't talk about how he recruited players he saw playing ball in vacant lots and built a team that danced onto the state stage in the past few years.
He didn't talk about how Lincoln East fans, in the state championship game three years ago, threw a bunch of green cards onto the field.
He didn't brag about this year's victory, Sayeg's amazing save or Jose Marquez's single game-winning shot.
What Maass talked about was someone else — a teacher with messy hair named Jack Bangert.
Bangert runs South's dual-language program, which offers core courses in English and Spanish. Next year, 343 are signed up. The dual-language program is housed in the Hope Center, which is open to any student, all day and on Saturdays for college and scholarship prep.
South High is filled with students with a number of challenges. Most qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunches. Most don't speak English as a first language. These contribute to the school's lower-than-OPS-average performance on state reading and math tests and to a four-year graduation rate of about 67 percent.
And yet, there is a palpable feeling that South is again on the rise.
It's evident in bursting enrollment.
It's evident in the 78 Buffett scholarships, which are based on need and academic performance.
It's evident in the way students talk about their school, especially after that sweet victory over Prep on Monday.
Said 17-year-old Eric Romero, a drummer in the South High band: “They're the pride of South Omaha.”
Said 15 year-old Haji Salad, who was born in Kenya: “This is a GREAT school.”
Said 18-year-old Ibeth Villa, heading to the University of Nebraska at Omaha this fall on a Buffett scholarship: “We're all in this together.”
All in this together.
Reminds me of a certain word.
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