Tag Archives: NCAA

The State of Volleyball

December 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For generations, football gave Nebraska a statewide identity. But with Husker gridiron fortunes flagging, volleyball is the new signature sport with booming participation and success.

Here and nationally, more girls now play volleyball than basketball (according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).

“It’s the main or premier sport for women right now,” Doane University coach Gwen Egbert says.

Omaha has become a volleyball showcase. The city hosted NCAA Division I Finals in 2006, 2008, and 2015, with the Cornhuskers competing on all three occasions (winning the national title in 2006 and 2015).

Packed crowds at the CenturyLink Center will once again welcome the nation’s top teams when Omaha hosts the championships in 2020. Meanwhile, Creighton University is emerging as another major volleyball powerhouse, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha has made strides in the Mavericks’ first two years of full Division I eligibility since joining the Summit Conference.

In the 2017 NCAA tournament, Creighton advanced to the second round (but fell to Michigan State). As this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press, the Cornhuskers headed to regionals in hopeful pursuit of a fifth national championship.

“The fact Nebraska has done and drawn so well, and that kids are seeing the sport at a high level at a young age, gets people excited to play,” says Husker legend Karen Dahlgren Schonewise, who coaches for Nebraska Elite club volleyball and Duchesne Academy in Omaha.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln first reached a national title game with Schonewise in 1986. The dominant defensive player set Nebraska’s career record for solo blocks (132)—a record that still stands—before going on to play professionally. (The Cornhuskers didn’t win the national championship until 1995.)

Skutt freshman and future Husker Lindsay Krause and current Creighton standout Brittany Witt (a Marian grad)

“I think the amount of kids that play in Nebraska is No. 1, per capita, in the country. I think the level of play is far higher than many states in the country,” says Omaha Skutt Catholic coach Renee Saunders, whose star freshman, 6-foot-3 Lindsay Krause, is a UNL verbal commit.

Volleyball’s attraction starts with plentiful scholarships, top-flight coaching, TV coverage, and professional playing opportunities.

Few states match the fan support found here.

“We have probably the most educated fans in the nation,” Saunders says. “They’re a great fan base. They know how to support their teams, and they’re very embracing of volleyball in general.”

The lack of physical contact appeals to some girls. The frequent team huddles after rallies draw others.

Omaha Northwest High School coach Shannon Walker says “the camaraderie” is huge. You really have to work together as a unit, communicate, and be six people moving within a tiny space.”

Volleyball’s hold is rural and urban in a state that has produced All-Americans, national champions, and Olympians.

The Husker program has been elite since the 1980s. Its architect, former UNL coach Terry Pettit, planted the seeds that grew this second-to-none volleyball culture.

“He really spearheaded a grassroots effort to build the sport,” says Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. “Besides winning, he also worked diligently to train our high school coaches.”

“It’s important to realize this goes back many years,” former Husker (2009-2012) Gina Mancuso says, “and I think a lot of credit goes to Terry Pettit. He created such an awesome program with high standards and expectations.”

Pettit products like Gwen Egbert have carried those winning ways to coaching successful club and high school programs and working area camps. Egbert built a dynasty at Papillion-LaVista South before going to Doane. Several Papio South players have excelled as Huskers (the Rolzen twins, Kelly Hunter, etc.).

Their paths inspired future Husker Lindsay Krause.

“Seeing the success is a big motivation to want to play,” Krause says. “Just watching all the success everyone has in this state makes you feel like it’s all the more possible for you to be able to do that.”

Many top former players go on to coach here, and most remain even after they achieve great success.

Walker says quality coaches don’t leave because “it’s the hotbed of volleyball—they’re staying here and growing home talent now.”

“It’s us colleges that reap the benefits,” Bernthal Booth says.

Pettit says it’s a matter of “success breeds success.”

Schonewise agrees, saying, “Once you see success, others want to try it and do it and more programs become successful.”

“The standard is high and people want to be at that high level. They don’t want to be mediocre,” UNO coach Rose Shires says.

Wayne State, Kearney, Hastings, and Bellevue all boast top small college programs. In 2017, Doane was the first Nebraska National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program to record 1,000 wins.

“We’ve got great Division I, Division II, NAIA, and junior college volleyball programs,” says Bernthal Booth, who took the Creighton job in part due to the area’s rich talent base. She feels CU’s breakout success coincided with the 2008 opening of D.J. Sokol Arena, which she considers among the nation’s best volleyball facilities.

“All these colleges in Nebraska are in the top 25 in their respective divisions,” Saunders says. “It’s crazy how high the level of play has gone, and I think it’s going to keep going that way.”

“It’s really built a great fan base of support,” Mancuso says, “and I think the reason the state produces a lot of great volleyball players is the fact we have great high school coaches, great college programs, and great club programs.”

Club programs are talent pipelines. There are far more today than even a decade ago. Their explosion has meant youth getting involved at younger ages and training/playing year-round. Nebraska Elite is building a new facility to accommodate all the action.

“The athleticism found in the state has always been pretty high, but the level of play has definitely improved. The kids playing today are more skilled. The game is faster,” Egbert says. “When I started out, you’d maybe have one or two really good players, and now you could have a whole team of really good players.”

“You have your pick of dozens of clubs, and a lot of those clubs compete at the USA national qualifiers and get their players that exposure,” says Shannon Walker, the Northwest High School coach who is also the director of the Omaha Starlings volleyball club.

“Volleyball is such a joy to be a part of in this state,” Mancuso says.

Gina Mancuso

“It’s cool to be a part of everything going on in Nebraska and watching it grow and develop,” Skutt freshman phenom Krause says.

“My goal is to make Lindsay ready to play top-level Division I volleyball by the time she graduates here,” Saunders says. “She already has the physicality, the competitive edge, the smarts. Now it’s just getting her to play to her full potential, which she hasn’t had to yet because she’s always been bigger than everybody. She’s definitely not shy of challenges. I feel like every time I give her a challenge, she steps up and delivers.”

Krause values that Saunders “gives great feedback on things I have to fix.”

Native Nebraskans dot the rosters of in-state and out-of-state programs. Along with Krause, Elkhorn South freshman Rylee Gray—who holds scholarship offers from Nebraska and Creighton—may emerge as another next big name from the Omaha metro. But they are both still a few years from the collegiate level.

UNO’s Shires says “impassioned” coaches like Saunders are why volleyball is rooted and embraced here. Shires came to Omaha from Texas to join the dominant program Janice Kruger built for the Mavericks at the Division II level. Kruger, now head coach at the University of Maryland, was previously captain of the Cornhuskers’ team (1977).

Further enhancing the volleyball culture, Shires says, is having former Olympian Jordan Larson and current pro Gina Mancuso come back and work with local players. Mancuso’s pro career has taken her around the world. She wants the players she works with at UNO, where she’s an assistant, to “see where it can take them.”

As volleyball has taken off, it’s grown more diverse. Most clubs are suburban-based and priced beyond the means of many inner-city families. The Omaha Starlings provide an alternative option. “Our fees are significantly lower than everybody else’s,” says Walker, the club’s director and Northwestern’s coach. “Anybody that can’t afford to pay, we scholarship.”

Broadening volleyball’s reach, she says, “is so necessary. As a result, we do have a pretty diverse group of kids. I’ve had so many really talented athletes and great kids who would have never been able to afford other clubs. We’re trying to even the scale and offer that same experience to kids who have the interest and the ability but just can’t afford it.”

“It’s very exciting to see diversity in the sport—it’s been a long time coming,” Schonewise says.

Forty-five Starlings have earned scholarships, some to historically black colleges and universities. Star grad Samara West (Omaha North) ended up at Iowa State.

Starlings have figured prominently in Omaha Northwest’s rise from also-ran to contender. Eight of nine varsity players in 2017 played for the club.

Walker knew volleyball had big potential, yet it’s exceeded her expectations. She says while competition is fierce among Nebraska coaches and players, they share a love that finds them, when not competing against each other, cheering on their fellows in this ever-growing volleyball family/community.

“It’s awesome,” Walker says. “But I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to reaching our peak yet.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

10 Cheap Things to do in Omaha This Summer

April 27, 2017 by

This is going to be no ordinary summer in Omaha, and the best part is, you won’t have to budget much to enjoy it with your family. There are inexpensive and free activities throughout the metro, from a pool with a pirate ship to a trail that leads to a waterfall. There are indoor and outdoor film series for families, as well as free festivals. Here are 10 ideas for cheap fun in Omaha.

1. Spraygrounds

For free water fun, head to one of the city parks with a sprayground: Benson Park, Fontenelle Park, Kountze Park, Orchard Park, Seymour Smith Park, Upland, Morton, Westwood Heights, and Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge Plaza. These spraygrounds are great because they’re also near playgrounds. You can find additional outdoor fountains and spraygrounds that cost no admission to play in at Omaha Children’s Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Shadow Lake Towne Center, and the First National Bank Tower.

2. Festivals
Free summer festivals in Omaha have kid-friendly aspects to them, while introducing new things to see, hear, and taste. Dance at a music series like Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing and Stinson Park at Aksarben Village. The Omaha Summer Arts Festival has an entire area dedicated to children’s activities.  Shakespeare on the Green has a tent of costumes for children to try on. Taste of Omaha is free, but you’ll want to buy tickets for food and rides.

3. Hikes

For the price of park admission, an adventure awaits on a nearby trail. One kid favorite is an easy trail that leads to a waterfall at Platte River State Park just outside of Omaha. Head to Hummel Park to search for the staircase that always baffles its climbers—no one can settle on how many steps there are. For a gem hidden in the middle of the city, visit Heron Haven Nature Center just northeast of 120th and Maple streets.

4. Unique Pools

Swimming is fun no matter where you go, but some local pools offer some fun extras worth checking out. The popular city pool at Lake Zorinsky has waterslides and a fun splash. Cross over the Missouri River to Council Bluffs to visit the city pool, Pirates Cove Pool, where kids can play around a pirate ship and use two waterslides. Head indoors to the Salvation Army Kroc Center and check out the newly renovated pool and waterslide.

5.   Explore the Old Market

The Old Market has so many things for kids to see, hear, and taste. On Saturday mornings, stroll the bustling farmers market. Visit any day of the week and you’ll likely encounter musicians playing music and charming horse-drawn carriages. Kids love the Old Market Candy Shop and Hollywood Candy. Head to The Passageway for toy store Le Wonderment, and then go on a hunt for the Zodiac Garden hidden behind an art gallery there.

6.  Downtown Fun

There’s more fun just beyond the Old Market. Slide down the big slides at Gene Leahy Mall. At Heartland of America Park, you may catch a gondolier offering inexpensive rides around the lake. Cross the “The Bob” pedestrian bridge to take that iconic picture standing on the state line. The building at the base of the bridge is the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters, which has a visitor’s center with free kid-friendly activities.

7. Bowl or Skate for Free

There are two national programs for children to sign up for that get them free rentals at local venues. Kids Bowl Free allows kids to have two free games each day all summer long. Shoe rental may not be included. Kids Skate Free is a similar program. SkateDaze participates in this program that allows children 12 and younger to skate for free once a day all summer long. The skate rental fee isn’t included.

8. Family Movies Series

Ruth Sokolof Theater at Film Streams has a great series for families, and children’s tickets are only $2.50. They show a mix of classics and first runs. Large chain theaters often have film series during the summer featuring slightly older movies at a discounted price. Check your closest Marcus Theatre and AMC Theatre to see if they’re participating. Check the calendar of events for Midtown Crossing and Sumtur Amphitheater to see when they show free outdoor movies.

9. Fan Fest

Feel like you’re a part of the NCAA Men’s College World Series experience for free at Fan Fest right outside the stadium. You can get into the spirit by playing interactive games, taking a photo with the trophy, meeting players, and soaking up the atmosphere. Fan Fest is open through the run of the series. Go to Open Day Celebration to catch batting practices and autograph sessions, concluding with the opening ceremony and fireworks. That’s all free, too.

10. Fort Atkinson

On the first Saturday and Sunday of the month, May through October, head to Fort Atkinson to see interactive historic recreations depicting life 200 years ago. Children can complete a scavenger hunt, earning a little treat at the General Store for finishing it. Actors shoot off a cannon during the re-enactment, which is cool for some kids and too loud for others. A state park permit is needed to get into the park to see the re-enactments. 

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

 

Austin Ortega

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How did a smallish soccer-playing Hispanic kid from sun-drenched Escondido, California, end up an ice hockey star in Nebraska?

Although his profile does not fit the stereotypical hockey player, UNO Mavericks forward Austin Ortega has risen to the top ranks of college hockey, a sport dominated by big bruisers from the North.

The senior—also known as “California Hot Sauce” and “Score-tega”—has proved doubters wrong ever since he left home at age 15 to pursue his hockey dreams.

He lived with host families while playing elite youth hockey in Colorado and during two seasons in the USHL. After a season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, he graduated from high school in Iowa. Then, he split his next season between the Indiana Ice and Fargo Force. A scholarship brought Ortega to UNO.

Despite being undersized (by elite hockey standards) at 5 feet 8 inches tall, 175 pounds, and a West Coast oddity, he’s been a prolific, crunch-time scorer everywhere he’s played. Competing in Division I’s toughest conference, he’s among Omaha’s all-time point leaders and holds two NCAA scoring records—for most game-winning goals in a season and a career. He’s made indelible memories and sparked frenzied cheers at the CenturyLink and, now, Baxter Arena.

Being Mr. Clutch is the result of instinct and intent.

“I’ve always tried to have the knack,” he says. “It really accelerated once I got here, especially over the last couple years, and it’s just something I keep trying to get better and better at.”

Players hit a wood board before stepping on the ice at Baxter Arena home games.

During a winter visit to Omaha, father Frank Ortega says that his son “lives for the moment to try to shoot the puck in when it matters. It started when he was younger, playing soccer. He wanted to be that guy doing the penalty kick. Over time he’s gained confidence, and now he’s developed into the guy who wants that puck.”

Austin Ortega and current-NHL player Jake Guentzel formed a potent one-two punch as sophomores leading Omaha to the program’s only Frozen Four berth in 2015. Last season started strong, with Omaha even netting its first No. 1 ranking, but fortunes sank, and the team missed making the playoffs altogether in 2016.

In Ortega’s collegiate season finale, despite losing Guentzel to the pros (the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Ortega’s linemate and the team’s captain before his senior year), he has continued to lead the Mavericks’ offensive effort.

In a two-game series with Lake Superior State, he got the game-winner the first night and led a furious come-from-behind win the second night.

“Halfway through the third period we had nothing going on,” coach Dean Blais says of the comeback. “I said to Austin, ‘You’ve got to take this game over. You’re our scorer, you’re our so-called leader in that category, and we need you now.’ And he was like shot out of a cannon. Austin’s found his way to get those game-winning goals. Sometimes he might score the fourth goal [after] the other team has scored three, but he’s also scored game-winning goals in overtime and shoot-out type situations, so he’s a real sniper.”

Taking on the pressure to be the hero or goat “is a lot to handle,” Blais says, “To be a leader you gotta want to be a leader—you gotta want to do it every day in practice, and he’s been doing that.” Blais has seen it all from Ortega and expects even more at the next level. “Austin will be signing an NHL contract with whoever gives him a good opportunity, but to get that he’s got to really earn that this last stretch of games. He’s among three or four forwards in the United States everyone’s looking at. It’s hard to find scoring in the NHL. Austin has that ability.”

The accolades, achievements, expectations, and opportunities are more than his parents imagined when he discovered skating and hockey at age 5. Unfamiliar with hockey, they figured his interest would wane.

“We never anticipated he would be to where he is now with all the success he’s seen,” Tessie Ortega says.

She and her husband were awed when Austin’s hockey skills earned a college scholarship. Everything else, including multiple Player of the Month national honors and vying for a national title, has been a blur.

“Austin’s shown a lot of dedication and made sacrifices to the sport.  There’s a lot of stuff he’s missed—birthday parties, holiday gatherings,” Frank Ortega says. “It’s amazing how it’s all coming to an end. It happened so fast.”

The player is keenly aware this amazing college ride is nearly done.

“One thing I’ve learned now that I’m a senior is to enjoy every moment,” Ortega says. “I know a lot of guys try to rush the process and get a call to pursue professional hockey as fast as they can. A lot of guys don’t realize this is one of the best times of their life. I mean, with this new rink and the fans and everything, I just like to soak it in and try to slow it down as much as I can, because I know I’ll be out of here real soon.”

His parents realize Ortega is on the verge of a pro hockey career, but they’re cautiously watching the process play out, just as they did when he went from youth leagues to the USHL to college. The NHL’s the next logical step.

“For us, there’s a little hesitation to think that can happen until it does because you don’t want to assume anything,” Frank Ortega says. “But it’s exciting.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Other World-Renowned Kobe

January 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kobe Paras had never heard of Omaha when Creighton called this past summer.

He spent the first 15 years of his life in the Philippines before moving to Los Angeles to chase a basketball scholarship. At the time, Creighton was just one of dozens of prominent basketball programs in pursuit of the high-flying 6-foot-5-inch tall guard. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott had coveted Paras since he first spotted the native Filipino while recruiting his high school teammate. Paras had committed to UCLA at the time, but he withdrew from the school in early June after failure to meet academic requirements. With Paras back on the open market, McDermott wanted to make him a Bluejay.

During his July visit to Creighton’s campus, Paras toured the $13 million Championship Center and posed for pictures with McDermott’s Naismith player of the year trophy, but it was the personal connections Paras made that led him to pick Creighton as his future home.

“I got to bond with the coaches and my teammates, and it really felt right,” Paras says.

He will need those bonds. Paras enjoys celebrity status in his home country, as the basketball-obsessed nation looks to him as a potential NBA player. The Pacific archipelago has never produced a professional player in the world’s most coveted league.

“I am not a regular student-athlete,” he says. “I have a lot of people looking up to me.”

Paras’ earliest memories are of hoards of fans stopping to ask his father, Benjie Paras, for autographs and pictures. Benjie was a two-time MVP in the Philippine Basketball Association, and has since become an actor. His father’s fame caused the younger Paras to grow up in the limelight, but Benjie tried to instill a sense of perspective in his son.

“When he was my age, he had to do laundry for other people to have enough money,” says the younger Paras of his father. “He kept telling me how blessed I was.”

Basketball was not something Paras picked up until the third grade. Before that time, he played badminton and table tennis. A growth spurt in seventh grade helped the now-taller young man to fall in love with basketball. Meanwhile, basketball continued to grow in popularity throughout the Philippines.

“Basketball in the Philippines is a religion,” Paras says. “Wherever you go, you see people playing basketball.” 

NBA games were constantly broadcast throughout the country, which helped Paras, whose first name pays homage to the recently retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, become familiar with the sport’s biggest stars.

In 2013, an encounter with his favorite player, Lebron James, took Paras’ fame to a whole new level. During a trip to the Philippines, James took part in a camp for the country’s most promising young players. In a pre-game warm-up, Paras slammed home a one-handed dunk as James leapt to the side of him in a half-hearted effort to play defense.

“I didn’t really plan it,” says Paras about the moment. “My friends were like, ‘do you realize who you just dunked on?’”   

The original video of the dunk received over 2.5 million views. That clip would bring about a whole new level of fame for the then-15 year old.

Paras’ move stateside to aid his basketball skills would come just months after the dunk. It was at Cathedral High School, under the guidance of coach William Middlebrooks, that Paras, living away from his family, honed his leadership skills and focused on building his brand.

“I told him, now that you are here, your popularity can only grow,” says coach Middlebrooks. “Especially as people better understand Kobe Paras the person.”

Paras also developed as a basketball player with more than just raw athleticism. He will bring those skills to a Creighton team poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

“He already has the body to play at this level,” says McDermott of Paras. “He also really knows how to put the ball in the basket.” 

And even thousands of miles from the Philippines, Paras’ enthusiastic fans have been able to follow his every move.

“We found out pretty quick that the media in the Philippines was going to find him wherever he went,” says McDermott, who has spent many a Skype session this fall with the media outlets in Paras’ home country.

Paras also keeps in touch with many back home via social media. On Twitter he has over 114,000 followers and on Instagram he has more than 454,000 followers.

“On social media people always reach out to me,” Paras says. “Anywhere I am, I feel the support.”

Even though he knew almost nothing about Omaha before his visit in July, he has come to appreciate his new home. He says his favorite place is the gym, and he loves that there is less traffic here than in Los Angeles. He also knows that the start of basketball season means winter is coming.

“He is getting ready for that snow,” Middlebrooks says. “He called me and said, ‘coach, I think I need boots.’”

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.

kobe1

Argent Jewelry

June 21, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Matt Powell of Perspective Jewelry freely admits he didn’t purposefully or strategically branch out his fine jewelry business into a new genre. He was, however, quick to recognize its potential.

“The sports stuff is something that we just sort of fell into,” he says. “We developed a cool product, there was customer demand for it, it lent itself to this kind of thing, and we’ve just taken off and ran with it.”

Powell’s unintentionally sporty but apt metaphor illustrates how, in just a few years, Perspective Jewelry has added an entire sub-business—Argent Sports—featuring officially licensed NCAA and College World Series custom jewelry pieces.

“We’re kind of on the fringe market in that we’re on the high-end side. We fit that alumni crowd, the more affluent, luxury-box crowd,” Powell says, explaining that his clients generally have long-held “institutional attachment” that becomes part of their identity, and they’re looking for lasting, high-quality jewelry to reflect that. “So we have product that ranges in retail price from, say, $75 to $2,000. That puts us at the very high-end of the licensed sports jewelry line.”

l-r: Sheila, Matt, and Chad Powell

l-r: Sheila, Matt, and Chad Powell

The pre-game actually began in 1993 when Powell left a position with a major fine jewelry retailer (where he specialized in custom projects) to strike out on his own from his hometown of Missouri Valley, Iowa. He brought his wife, Sheila, into the business side of things. His son, Chad, eventually became a CAD (computer-aided design) master and joined the family business.  In 2007, the Powells opened up an Old Market storefront, Perspective Jewelry Design Studio, where they created, and still create, many one-of-a-kind engagement rings and other fine pieces.

For the first few years at Perspective, the Powells were comfortable with just their “nice niche” of taking clients’ ideas (and sometimes heritage diamonds or other elements) all the way from rough concept to shining reality.

“We’re artisans in that we know how to do it all. We can design it, we can build the models and prototypes, we can cast the pieces, we can set the stones, we can do all the other work involved with it,” he says. “It’s really all—start-to-finish—us.”

The same in-house resources that were optimal for couples designing engagement rings made possible the fast turnaround time needed for custom sports jewelry. Argent Sports began with a simple baseball pendant created during a College World Series. Using various precious metals and a range of enamels, diamonds, and gemstones, the Powells developed a line of customized baseball necklaces for team insiders and fans by the next year’s series.

“We found something that people responded to and reacted to, and we took that and built on it. We kept fine-tuning it and adjusting, and through that feedback loop, we developed a product line that works,” Powell says, explaining that the direct interaction with clients visiting during the CWS was another advantageous factor in Argent’s growth.

“If I were sitting in my little shop in Missouri Valley, I don’t think I could have ever done it.”

ArgentJewelry3

Baseball pendants are still a mainstay for Argent, and they have more design options to broaden the spectrum further. “We do add new product all the time,” Powell says.  “We have something for different price points.”

Baseball jewelry led to football jewelry, and, following a serendipitous visit from just the right official, Powell was able to gain exclusive rights to licensed NCAA logos and images. With the ability to create exclusive, institution-approved pieces, the CWS remains a peak period for business, and Powell gets closer to the fans each year through a temporary second location he operates in Omaha Baseball Village. He holds relationships with retailers from Alabama to Wisconsin, often in communities with the right kind of fan, such as college towns. This enables him to sell team-affinity jewelry year-round— and sell baseball pieces long after the last CWS game. He’s produced pieces in batches for special groups like alumni organizations and booster groups.

“You have to have the right crowd and the right store…There’s a streakiness and a quirkiness to it that’s really hard to put your thumb on, and we’ve really kind of learned as we’ve gone along,” he says.

Most of the pieces on the top end of the line are made on demand, Powell says, and although he doesn’t mass-produce, anything that doesn’t sell can usually be recast and the material repurposed.

“We’re not doing any of this overseas; it’s all done here in Omaha and Missouri Valley. Because it’s all done locally and we’re able to turn it pretty quickly, I don’t have to stock a ton of inventory and hope it sells. When I get an order I can fill it either immediately or pretty quickly and then I can backfill.”

Paint the Sky

June 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in summer 2015 B2B.

If you’ve ever been dazzled by fireworks at TD Ameritrade Park or Memorial Stadium, you know Paint the Sky Productions.

Owner Ted Kallhof has coordinated some of the area’s largest fireworks displays for the past 15 years. A pyrotechnician since 1985, Kallhof started Paint the Sky Productions (a subsidiary of nationwide J&M Displays) as a way to make extra money doing something he loves. Today, the company includes 65 part-time employees who put on more than 130 events each year.

Walking the grounds of Kallhof’s 25-acre rural Council Bluffs property, you would never suspect that at times there are thousands of pounds of explosives tucked away out of sight. Next to the chicken coop, not far from the dilapidated old barn Kallhof is in the process of demolishing, stand storage containers housing enough explosives to light up the sky like the Fourth of July.

In the fireworks business, safety must be of the utmost concern, and Kallhof employs strict measures to ensure his operations are safe. He could not take me near any of the storage facilities, saying, “We can’t even make the address public, because of the amount of explosives out here.”

Kallhof trains his employees on the property, holding week-long certification courses where they learn how to safely and effectively handle fireworks. Paint the Sky’s website boasts a perfect safety record across 750 events.

PaintTheSky1'

 

 

 

 

“It’s changed a lot over the years,” Kallhof says. “Ten years ago, everything was lit by hand, but today it’s almost completely computerized. We only do five or six shows a year by hand, everything else is computer or wireless.”

Paint the Sky has created fireworks spectacles for every kind of event you can imagine—personal, corporate, municipal, and sports-related. Lots of sports-related events.

“We became an NCAA preferred vendor a few years ago,” Kallhof says. “I’m a lot busier now than before.” As an NCAA preferred vendor, Kallhof visits stadiums around the country to facilitate shows.

They also specialize in effects for television programs, like ABC’s In an Instant, which was recently filmed in the area.

Throughout the years, Kallhof says some events have been particularly memorable.

“We did a memorial service for a woman who had breast cancer,” he remembered. “I met her about six months before she passed away. She didn’t like that her family couldn’t enjoy themselves around her when she was sick, so she wanted it to be fun.” She was cremated and her ashes were shot up into the sky with the fireworks.

Omaha’s 150th birthday celebration in 2004 also stands out for Kallhof. Paint the Sky put on a display using 50,000 pounds of explosives deployed in eight minutes at three sites within a mile and a half of each other.

When you are working with something captivating that brings joy to so many, it feels good to give back. Kallhof says he enjoys working with groups like Molly’s Miracles, an organization for children battling brain cancer.

“We put on a free show for the kids every year,” he says. “It’s great to see their reactions.”

Kallhof plans to continue using his passion to make the world a brighter—much brighter—place, painting the sky one night at a time.

PaintTheSky2

Visitors Spend a Record $1 Billion

August 26, 2013 by
Illustration by U.S. Travel Association

Imagine Omaha hosting 40 College World Series events every year—in essence, that’s what actually happens in our city. New economic impact research shows 5 million out-of-town guests visited Omaha in 2012, the equivalent of holding the CWS in our city dozens and dozens of times. But more importantly, the research shows Omaha is no longer a one- or two-trick pony, where people only visit to attend the CWS or Berkshire Hathaway’s Shareholders Meeting. Our city has developed into a year-round destination.

Research conducted by Tourism Economics shows more people are visiting Omaha and spending more in our city than ever before. In 2012, research shows visitors spent $1.025 billion dollars in Omaha, a 13 percent spending increase in two years. As expected, visitor spending is highest during the second and third quarter during the typical summer travel season; however, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent during other times of the year as well—more proof Omaha’s tourism engine is running full time.

The fact that tourism is a year-round business also impacts each of us directly in the form of tax relief. When visitors eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, and shop in our stores, they are bringing new money into our local economy. Tourism Economics reports that visitor spending saves each Douglas County household approximately $655 a year in taxes.

These new numbers make it clear that the more visitors spend, the more we save—simple math that adds up to a big return all year long.

Questions or comments? E-mail us at info@visitomaha.com.

Dana Markel is Executive Director of Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

It’s Hockey Time in Omaha!

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Jeff Beiermann

Omaha may not appear to be a hockey town to the casual observer, but you don’t have to peel back the layers too far to find evidence of such.

The University of Nebraska-Omaha and Omaha Lancers, who carry the hockey banner in Omaha, have consistently played quality hockey with the Mavericks making two trips to the NCAA Tournament in their 15 years of competition, while the Lancers have accumulated more United States Hockey League Championships (13) than any other USHL teams since they joined the league in 1986.

And fan support has and continues to be second to none.

UNO Mavericks

The University of Nebraska-Omaha Maverick hockey team.

“Omaha is a good hockey town,” UNO Mavericks head coach Dean Blais says. “We’re near the top of the country in terms of attendance on a yearly basis. The support from the fans is huge and their commitment is extremely important to our program.”

Mike Aiken, Lancers head coach and general manager, adds, “Omaha has always had a strong hockey following, and it’s only getting better. There’s great development within the youth league and with the new arenas providing additional ice time that will only increase.”

This winter Omaha hockey will get another boost as an unique event will be held at TD Ameritrade Park. The Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice February 9 will feature a doubleheader as both Omaha squads entertain two of their fiercest rivals. The Mavericks take on the North Dakota Fighting Sioux while the Lancers face the Lincoln Stars.

“This area turns out some good kids with the strong youth hockey program, and I think that development will grow with the addition of hockey facilities in the city.” – Dean Blais, head coach of UNO Mavericks hockey team

“The concept came from the Omaha Lancers and the doubleheader gave us the best chance of having a successful event such as this,” comments Harold Cliff, the President of the Omaha Sports Commission. “We wanted meaningful games and to provide something different at another one of the great Omaha venues. Omaha is a great sports community. These teams have competed well in the past and this is another opportunity to display their talents. With the doubleheader we’ll also be able to provide two different types of hockey and expect strong attendance. It may not be something we can do annually, but we’ll measure the response and this could grow. A lot depends on support. Sponsors also play a large part, and Mutual of Omaha stepped up in a big way for this year. Local hockey interest remains strong, and we are confident this will be a successful event.”

Omaha Lancers practice at Ralston Arena.

Omaha Lancers practice at Ralston Arena.

Blais and Aiken echo Cliff’s excitement for this upcoming event and believe it’s a great opportunity to showcase their teams.

“It will be an awesome event,” Aiken says. “With us playing Lincoln, which is one of the best rivalries in the league, it should be a great experience for the players and fans alike.”

It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for hockey in Omaha as this season the Lancers began play in the brand-new Ralston Arena.

“We’ve moved into an unbelievable building, and we feel fortunate to have such a facility,” says Aiken. “Our facilities are second to none and give us the opportunity to recruit the best players out there. We’re more than hockey, it’s an entertainment package. A fan friendly atmosphere with great hockey, which people can really enjoy. We get involved with the community quite a bit, and we plan to continue to promote our organization through the good people who are a part of it.”

UNO will also be changing home ice in the future after announcing plans in late 2012 to build an on-campus arena to host indoor Maverick athletics including hockey.

UNO Mavericks play Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in November.

UNO Mavericks play Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in November 2012.

“This area turns out some good kids with the strong youth hockey program, and I think that development will grow with the addition of hockey facilities in the city,” Blais explains. “More kids will be able to get ice time, which will be great for the future. Our future goals include winning a national championship. As we move into a very good conference (WCHA), it will help with recruiting. We like the state of our program and what we think we’ll be able to accomplish in the future.”

That future looks bright, for all those involved and interested in Omaha hockey, thanks to the commitment from the organizations, community, and fans alike.

Blatt Beer & Table

August 17, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With a sprawling beer list and a food menu designed to complement the brews, it’s easy for pub grub fans and craft beer connoisseurs to hit a home run at Blatt Beer & Table.

Named after Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, the restaurant and bar offers a wide variety of craft beers from microbreweries around the world. The selection includes 24 draft beers, as well as numerous bottled and canned beer.

The menu features flavors from across the globe: German bratwurst and spaetzle; American classics, such as chicken and waffles and mac ‘n’ cheese; an Indian-spiced char-grilled chicken sandwich with mango chutney; the popular Mexican street-food snack chicharones (fried pork skins dusted with chili powder); and Irish brownies made with a Guinness batter.

20120925_bs_3798-copy_2

Blatt is among the newest additions to North Downtown (NoDo)’s dining scene. Located directly south of TD Ameritrade Park, it opened in June, just in time for the College World Series.

When the CWS ended, a new crowd stepped up to plate. Blatt attracts a diverse group that includes residents of neighboring apartment buildings, downtown office workers, Creighton University students and staff, Film Streams moviegoers, and those attending concerts and other events at CenturyLink Center Omaha.

“It’s a great place to hang out,” says Kailin Sneller, Blatt Beer & Table’s general manager. “People have really started to catch on to us.”

The diverse crowd, laid-back atmosphere, and relaxed vibe fit in well with the eclectic and supportive businesses that comprise NoDo, says Sneller, adding that Blatt differs from other bars and restaurants in the area because it has an extensive and ever-changing beer selection, craft cocktail menu, and food that pairs with beer.

20120925_bs_3733-copy_2

Another part of its appeal is the rooftop patio, which Sneller said is a great spot to relax and take in the view, weather permitting. “You can see all of downtown,” she says. “It’s really cool.”

Blatt’s interior features a blend of styles, from rustic to industrial. The space gets a vintage feel from tin ceiling tiles repurposed to create part of the bar. Wood-topped tables and exposed brick walls provide a warm, classic flair. Modern elements include concrete floors, sleek metal stools, and garage-style doors that open in nicer weather.

Custom labels adorn bottles of ketchup, mustard, and malt vinegar. Food arrives on tin pie plates, and some items are tucked inside brown paper bags for a stylish and fun presentation.

20120925_bs_3721-copy_2

Blatt offers Zesto ice cream cones, shakes, and other frozen treats seasonally inside the restaurant and at a walk-up window on the south side of the Blatt. Both are operated by Flagship Restaurant Group, which also runs Blue Sushi and Roja locations in Omaha.

Tony Gentile, Flagship’s corporate executive chef, created Blatt’s menu with Mikey Hill, Blatt’s executive chef. Gentile said the menu showcases simple, unfussy, and delicious bar food that goes well with a wide range of beers. Blatt’s staff are happy to suggest food and beer pairings.

Blatt Beer & Table, 610 N. 12th St., is open daily at 11am. For more information, visit blattbeer.com or call 402-718-8822.