Tominaga’s Career Day Leads NU Past Penn State

By Jacob Bigelow

When did Fred Hoiberg know that Kesei Tominaga was in for a big game? 

“Probably when he hit the one from halfcourt,” the Huskers basketball coach said. “I think that was the one where I kind of knew that it was Keisei’s night.”

Grinning from ear to ear, Tominaga echoed that sentiment. How early did he know? 

“Probably the first shot,” Tominaga said. 

Amid a four-game losing streak and down two members of its starting lineup, Nebraska defeated Penn State 72-63 on Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, moving to 11-13 on the season and 4-9 in the Big Ten.

With the local discourse around the program more about the uncertainty of next year instead of the season at hand, Hoiberg’s Huskers led from start to finish against the visitors, who fell to 14-9 and 5-7. 

Tominaga finished with a career high 30 points, 16 of those coming in the second half. It was the third-highest scoring output by a Husker in a Big Ten game. His five 3-pointers were also the most a Husker has made in a game this season.

Tominaga is best known as a shooter, but his slashing cuts off the ball and his attempts at the basket prove he’s much more than that.

CE5A3074 800
30 Keisei Tominaga

“People label Keisei as a shooter, but his cutting off of Derrick (Walker), off of (Sam) Griesel, is really impressive,” Hoiberg said. “And when teams are hugging him like they were today, and like they always play him, cutting is something that he has to do.” 

Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said the Nittany Lions made the mistake of letting Tominaga get going. 

“We didn’t do a good job,” Shrewsberry said. “We didn’t do a good job at all, but I thought he was great. I thought he got into a rhythm early by getting layups. Everything starts to fall from there.”

Tominaga’s long bombs, quick drives into the lane and his overall energy have made him a fan favorite.

“It is infectious,” Hoiberg said. “You see that when he hits those shots, when he gets to the end of the lane and hits those circus shots, you see the bench go crazy for him, you see his teammates out on the floor. It’s just fun to have a guy play with that much passion.”

Tominaga wasn’t the only act that drew raves. Guard Jamarques Lawrence finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. The freshman from Plainfield, New Jersey, has seen his role expand following season-ending injuries to Emmanuel Bandoumel and Juwan Gary. 

Nebraska hit four of its first five 3-pointers to lead 22-13 early in the first half. Tominaga set the tone by scoring 10 of the Huskers’ first 17.

NU’s largest lead was 15 at 35-20 following a traditional three-point play by Griesel. Penn State responded by scoring six straight to get within single digits before half at 37-28. 

Penn State would eventually cut the lead to three late in the second half, but a Tominaga layup and another 3-pointer all but slammed the door. The dagger came from Lawrence, who nailed his third 3 right in front of his head coach with 45 seconds to play. Free throws down the stretch from Lawrence and Sam Hoiberg finished the game. 

Penn State attempted 38 3-pointers, more than half of their total shot attempts. Seth Lundy  finished the game with eight 3-pointers, tying the Pinnacle Bank Arena record for made 3s in a game. Jalen Pickett finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists after being held in check the first half.

Lundy, Pickett and Andrew Funk accounted for 53 of Penn State’s 63 points. 

The Huskers took care of the ball and finished with only seven turnovers, a much better performance than its 19 and 15 turnovers in back-to-back road losses to Maryland and Illinois.  

“It started with our preparation and how we were going to turn the page and come back in here and get back to work and the guys were very resilient,” Hoiberg said.

Husker Volleyball Will Play Spring Exhibition in Central City

By Lincoln Arneal

Central City built it, so Nebraska will come. 

The Huskers will play their only spring exhibition match this year in Central City’s new Bison Activity Dome, the first monolithic dome in the state, which also doubles as a EMA-rated tornado shelter.

A few years ago, Central City reached out to the Huskers about visiting its town for highly sought-after spring match. It was in the process of replacing gym, which only had a capacity of 900. 

In the place of the gym near the elementary school was a $7.7 million dome, which was built with the help of a federal grant. The dome was completed late last year. 

“They reached out about four years ago and said hey, we’re gonna build this facility where you guys come and open it,” NU coach John Cook said. “We said, ‘Sure, if you build it will come.’  They got it built and I think they’ve had a couple of events just to kick it off.”

Ticket information has not been released for the spring match. Last year, the match against Kansas sold out the 8,000-seat Heartland Events Center in Grand Island.  

The Huskers have played their spring match around the state including McCook, Kearney, Norfolk, Ogallala and Wayne. 

Surfer Dude

Mike Croel Rode the Waves to Nebraska

Story by Shane G. Gilster

Mike Croel was a dude on the field for the Huskers but his first love was riding the waves on his surfboard. If you look at some of the Nebraska football photos of him, you will see a white towel with a surf image hanging out of his back pocket.

“I’ve been surfing since I was thirteen years old,” Croel said. “My love of surfing came when I grew up in Los Altos [California]. That was back in the 1980s, when you didn’t see too many black kids surfing. I was more of a dirt bike racing, skateboarding, and going to the beach kind of kid. I didn’t start playing football until junior high flag football. My dad wasn’t a big sports fan so our household wasn’t into it.”

It wasn’t until Croel and his family moved across the country to Massachusetts that he got more into sports. Croel played his last two years of high school at Lincoln-Sudbury where he was an all-state tight end on back-to-back state title teams. He was also the New England high school 100-meter dash champion.

“When I moved to Sudbury, I did pretty well in track and won the 100 meters (10.7) my senior year,” he said. “I was the biggest guy on the track, so for someone my size to run that fast was unusual. A high school coach from Connecticut was going to be one of the assistant coaches at Nebraska so he told them about me. That is how things got started in the recruiting process.”

  • Croel played for the Huskers from 1987 through 1990. In 2003, he was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
  • Croel blocked a punt against Missouri in 1989, which resulted in a safety. The Huskers defeated the Tigers, 50-7.
  • Croel was a first-round pick by the Denver Broncos and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1991.
  • Croel enjoys creating abstract artwork in his free time.

NU assistant coach Frank Solich was Croel’s primary recruiter for Nebraska. Having grown up mostly in California, Croel originally wanted to go back there to college. But his favorite school (UCLA) didn’t recruit him so his final choices were Penn State, Syracuse and Nebraska.

“I visited Nebraska during a snowstorm, so you can’t accuse me of picking them because of the weather,” Croel laughed. “NU had a good academic program; the coaches were really friendly and the football program was amazing.”

Croel along with teammate Joe Sims committed to the Huskers and became part of the 1987 recruiting class that also included quarterback Mickey Joseph who is now on the Husker coaching staff.

“Joe and I made our own decisions and it just happened to be Nebraska. I was recruited at linebacker but when I got to Nebraska, they weren’t sure were to put me,” said Croel who also played receiver and returned kicks in high school. “My speed was a big factor in my success, if I made a mistake, I could overcome it with my speed. No one could catch me and I could catch anyone I wanted.”

Croel’s fastest clocked time was a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash but he was on the lighter side of the Husker linebackers, weighing around 225. But playing on the outside, he could be aggressive and cover receivers. His speed and versatility helped him become one of three true freshmen to play along with defensive backs Reggie Cooper and Tahaun Lewis.

Croel made a name for himself on special teams his first two years. He blocked a kick as a freshman and the following year, had a team-high two punt blocks, which resulted in Husker TDs. He then moved into the starting role at outside linebacker in 1989 and 1990.

His best games at Nebraska came in his junior year. One was against Utah when he was named the Big Eight defensive player-of-the-week. Game. Croel had five tackles (four unassisted), broke up two passes and returned an interception six yards for a TD.  Then against Oregon State, he had a career-high eight tackles, including two sacks for 15 yards, a quarterback hurry, and a pass breakup.

As a senior, Croel was second on the team in sacks (5) and the fifth-leading tackler with 61. The Blackshirt defense was touted as the best in school history during most of 1990 season. Then November hit. The Huskers were 8-0 and faced the nineth-ranked Buffaloes in Lincoln. NU looked to be in great shape heading into the fourth quarter up 12-0 until the Buffs scored 27 unanswered to win 27-12.

“We had a really good defense, but the night before that game against Colorado, our video production crew made a highlight tape to the song ‘Wipeout’ by the Fat Boys / Beach Boys and showed it to our defense. I think we got too hyped up and it hurt us the next day,” Croel said.

The Huskers finished 9-3 that season but Croel was a second-team All-American, first-team All-Big Eight, and a Butkus Award semifinalist.

Leading up to the 1991 NFL Draft, Croel became a hot commodity. He did well in the NFL combine and kept moving up the draft board. He was a sure-fire first rounder but declined an invite to New York in favor of staying at home to watch the draft with his family. He had heard too many horror stories about guys sitting in the draft room and dropping out of the first round.

But Croel went higher than anyone expected, being the number four overall draft pick by the Denver Broncos. His teammate, Bruce Pickens, went third to Atlanta.

“I was surprised at the time to go that high but the draft is all about teams drafting for what they need. You could be the best linebacker in the draft but could go later based on team needs,” Croel said.

Because of contract negotiations, Croel showed up late to the Broncos training camp and was thrust into a starting role after starter Tim Lucas went down with a knee injury. Croel used his speed and athleticism as a pass rusher to record ten sacks and be named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was two sacks shy of tying the team record.

“Denver gave me the opportunity to rush the passer as a strongside linebacker,” Croel said. After my first year, my sack productivity went down but I was doing what I was supposed to do at my position. I looked at myself as a linebacker/defensive back. Half the time I was covering the number two receiver.”

Croel’s sack production was cut down to half (5) each of the next two seasons, but his tackle total went up each year with a career-high 110 tackles in 1993. That season he also had an interception return for a touchdown against Brett Favre of Green Bay Packers.

Then in his fourth season, Mike Shanahan came in as head coach and did a rehaul of the Denver team, causing Croel to have one-year stints at the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks.

“I wanted to play defensive end and rush the passer so I played in the World League to get practice at defensive end and then played my final season in the NFL with Seattle. I then took a year off and had a chance to play in the XFL, but because of injuries, I decided against it,” he said.

Since his retirement from football, Croel has become a surfer dude, taking surfing trips to Costa Rica, Bali Indonesia, and Maldives.

“I usually try to get out about four times per week and about two hours every time,” said Croel, who mainly surfs at Malibu, California. “There are always around a couple hundred people in the water and I know sixty percent of them. We are all trying to catch the perfect wave and just have a good time. Surfing keeps me shape and is a great workout in the water. It is also relaxing when it’s just me and my board.”

Croel does a little real estate on the side along with sports consulting work with speed and agility programs for kids. He also does some artwork on the side, having been a graphic design major at Nebraska.

“I like doing abstract artwork, manipulating photos, and painting,” Croel said. “I mainly do stuff for myself but have done movie posters and designing signs and logos for people.”

Croel has two daughters. Chase (18) will be graduating from high school this year and with hopes of earning a track scholarship and Carson (22) is at San Francisco University studying sports medicine.

Croel doesn’t watch much football as he would rather spend his time at the beach but he still follows his Huskers.

“I am shocked at what is happening at Nebraska,” said Croel who is planning on coming back for this year’s Spring Game. “The program went downhill after they got rid of Frank [Solich]. They should have just left Frank alone.”

The Golden Era of Winter Sports Banquets

Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell was a guest at the B’nai B’rith dinner at Peony Park in February of 1973. Emcee Dave Blackwell is at the podium.
Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell was a guest at the B’nai B’rith dinner at Peony Park in February of 1973. Emcee Dave Blackwell is at the podium.

Big Names, Wise Cracks and Lots of Full Bellies

Story by Michael Kelly

Weeks after the most excruciating loss in Husker football history, when a 2-point conversion attempt failed in a 31-30 Nebraska loss for a national championship, coach Tom Osborne drew a zinger from emcee Dave Blackwell.

After dessert at an Omaha sports banquet, sportscaster  Blackwell playfully offered the coach an extra piece of pie. “Tom,” he said, extending a small plate, “would you like to go for two?”

The crowd of several hundred erupted in long laughter, partly in shock at the bold needling. Osborne, a careful eater who may not have consumed even a first piece of pie, could take the ribbing, though; his decision to “go for two” in the 1984 Orange Bowl had been controversial and he’d already heard just about everything.

But that wisecrack by Blackwell at an annual Christ the King parish fundraising dinner may stand as the most memorable from a kind of golden age of Omaha winter and spring sports banquets that included heavy doses of humor. And when it came to one-liners, Blackwell was the “master” of ceremonies.

“Dave wasn’t afraid to take a shot at anybody,” said Gary Java, a longtime Omaha broadcaster. “He’d say anything, just fire away. He was good at pushing the envelope to make everybody laugh.”

Gary Javitch, president of the Henry Monsky Lodge of B’nai B’rith, retains similar memories of Blackwell from the Jewish organization’s annual charity fundraiser. “He could rip somebody up and down but at the same time be funny.”

Javitch and Java, the two Garys (not related but they have met), are among many middle-age or older folks who remember the late Blackwell for his roast-style humor.

At a B’nai B’rith dinner, he teased then-Creighton coach Willis Reed, the NBA Hall of Famer, for recruiting a Jewish player named Goldberg. “Willis, you’d do anything to get a free ticket to this banquet.”

Blackwell claimed that the stone-faced Rev. Robert Gass, Christ the King pastor, drove a Jaguar “with stained-glass windows in the back.”

This time of year is the offseason for football but the traditional on-season for sports banquets. The aforementioned Catholic and Jewish dinners weren’t the only ones, but for years they were the big ones. “Christ the King in the winter and B’nai B’rith in the spring,” Java said. “It was a rite of passage in sports.”

B’nai B’rith held its final dinner in 2017, ending a custom of 62 years. Javitch cited a combination of factors, including competition with other functions, rising costs and finding enough volunteers to produce the event.

Because of the pandemic, the Christ the King Sports Club paused its annual banquet after 2019. The club hopes to resume with another one in May or June featuring a local speaker.

The Omaha Sportscasters Association Midwinter Banquet named a local sports-person of the year, but its last dinner was its 36th in 2002. The Boys Town Booster Banquet continues, though, welcoming Purple Heart recipient and Paralympian Melissa Stockwell as an inspirational speaker on April 26.

Various schools, universities and hall of fame inductions still draw crowds, as do Creighton Jaybacker Jamborees. So do a couple of national events in Omaha – the Outland Trophy banquet honoring the best college lineman and Johnny Rodgers’ Jet Award for the best college kick returner.

Humor has long been a premium at sports banquets, and sometimes the spontaneity is over the top. In 1991 the Platte Valley Booster Club in Kearney honored Husker athletic director and former football coach Bob Devaney on his 75th birthday. Unannounced as a surprise guest, and dressed as a chef pushing a cart bearing a birthday cake, was Barry Switzer, the former Oklahoma head coach.

Switzer took the microphone and gave his friend Bob a bad time for not recognizing him. Devaney faux-apologized, ad-libbing: “Barry, if you’d been carrying a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, I’d have known who it was.”

At a B’nai B’rith dinner honoring Devaney, Osborne poked fun at himself by saying it was tough to follow Devaney as coach, but that Bob never interfered. “He stood back and watched me run the football up the middle for 17 years and never said a word about it.”

The great Purdue and New Orleans Saints passer Drew Brees, in town for a Boys Town banquet, was asked if Osborne ever called him as a high school recruit. “Have you ever seen me run the option?” Brees quipped. “That’s the reason he didn’t call me.”

LaVell Edwards, the Brigham Young University coach, razzed Oklahoma’s supposed academic standards for Sooners with the old saw about how many it took to screw in a light bulb.  “One,” he said. “But he gets three credit hours.”

Lou Holtz, the Notre Dame coach, spoke with Devaney to 1,200 attending a 1988 motivational night for the Sales and Marketing Executives of the Midlands at the old Civic Auditorium Music Hall. Holtz previously coached Minnesota, taking over the year after the 1983 Huskers demolished the Gophers 84-13.

“The athletic director told me there was potential, and that they had lost to Nebraska by 10,” Holtz said. “I didn’t know he meant 10 touchdowns.”

The Omaha Press Club Gridiron Shows, with dinners that ended in 2016, for decades spoofed politicians but often included a Husker parody. Portraying Nancy Osborne, a cast member sang, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a Husker, pinnin’ all your hopes on just one man. Stand by my man!”

When an NU athletic director was adding luxury boxes to Memorial Stadium, a singer in 1997 parodied “Ghost Riders in the Sky”:


One day Bill Byrne was sitting down

in a stadium seat.

Bring in more cash, pile it up high.

Skyboxes i-i-i-in the sky!


And when Nebraska won the 1994 national championship over nemesis Miami:


Ding dong, we finally won

The Orange Bowl – we’re No. 1!

Unfinished business now is done.

Heigh! Ho! The merry-o,

The Hurricanes are feeling low.


Big-name national speakers often drew big crowds, ranging from football’s John Madden for B’nai B’rith in 1977 to baseball’s Joe Maddon for Christ the King in 2017. Some celebrities spoke to both in different years, including Devaney, Osborne, Switzer and, yes, Lee Corso – now famous for wearing a costumed mascot head from the team he picks to win on ESPN’s “College Gameday.”

The Boys Town banquet started in 1969 with boxing champ Rocky Marciano and has included such household names as Ernie Banks, Oscar Robertson, Jesse Owens, Johnny Bench, Ted Williams, Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach and Dick Vitale.

An especially memorable night for the Omaha Sportscasters Association came in 1970, when hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who once played for the Omaha Knights, received the award from the 1967 recipient, baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who played basketball and baseball for the Creighton Bluejays.

Among the most widely known speakers at Christ the King have been Scott Frost, Bill Walton, Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, Bobby Bowden, Mike Tirico, Greg Gumbel, Billy Packer, Red Auerbach, Ray Nitschke, Ara Parseghian and, in 1998, Archie Manning.

A former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints’ star himself, Archie spoke just weeks after Nebraska had defeated son Peyton Manning’s Tennessee team 42-17 in Osborne’s final game as NU coach. The coaches’ poll voted the Huskers the 1997 national champs, Nebraska’s third national title in four years.

The previous year, everyone wondered if Peyton would return for that season, his senior year, or would “go pro.” Everywhere Archie went, people asked: “Peyton goin’ pro? Peyton goin’ pro?” The elder Manning, a Protestant, told the Catholic audience that he had the honor of standing in line to meet Pope John Paul II, who leaned forward and asked, “Peyton goin’ pro?” (Banquet jokes don’t have to be true to be funny.)

The largest crowd for B’nai B’rith, more than 1,800, was for Switzer in 1986 at the old Peony Park ballroom. Other speakers for the group over the years included Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Mike Ditka, Arthur Ashe, Howard Cosell, Bud Selig, Bob Knight and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Oh, and Peyton Manning in 2016.

Peyton was a good “get” for B’nai B’rith because that was the year of Manning’s famous “Omaha” calls at the line of scrimmage. The Denver Broncos quarterback said before the banquet that everywhere he went, he got suggestions for a new word to call out.

“A city, a state, a company, a new website – you can only imagine,” Peyton said. “Well, I am here to tell you, I’m sticking with Omaha.”

Manning was true to his word. After his football career, he launched an entertainment company and gave it a great name – Omaha Productions.

Sports are played out with tension on fields and courts, but folks enjoy relaxing at other times over a meal, reminiscing and at times enjoying laughter. Postseason banquets provide that.

“They are such a great connection with the community,” said Tod Kellen, athletic director at Christ the King School. “A lot of folks who are not parishioners come, and companies sponsor tables. Just about everyone there is a fan who enjoys the camaraderie and excitement of sports. It’s always a great time to hear someone you’ve seen on TV or heard on the radio talk about their experiences and life.”

The B’nai B’rith and Christ the King banquets for years were called “sports stags,” meaning they were for men only. Both dropped the “stag” name and began welcoming  women around 1990. That was an era when Rotary Clubs opened full membership to women after a U.S. Supreme Court decision said the service club could no longer discriminate by gender. Doors were opening everywhere for women.

There had been no hue and cry from women to attend the sports banquets, but the change was a sign of the times. Previously, at last one quiet incident had occurred that was hurtful. A B’nai B’rith spokesman said a divorced mother who had raised her son was naturally unhappy when the son was honored as a high school athlete of the year at the banquet, but only the father was allowed to attend.

For the most part, sports banquets are enjoyable. And Blackwell, who died in 2005 at 66 from complications of diabetes, is well-remembered not only for his humor as an emcee but for keeping things moving.

Blackwell became popular in Omaha as a KMTV sportscaster starting in 1964 and then as a color commentator alongside Lyell Bremser on Husker football broadcasts. Even after he took a sports broadcasting job in Salt Lake City in 1973, Christ the King and B’nai B’rith continued to bring him back as emcee for 20-plus years. (Java, now sales manager for the Pinnacle Bank Championship on the Korn Ferry pro golf tour, succeeded him at CTK for several years. Radio personality Otis XII emceed B’nai B’rith.)

Unlike today, when it’s easy to go online and keep up with local news from elsewhere, Blackwell in Utah subscribed to print editions of the World-Herald. He clipped articles as the basis for topical jokes.

“People thought he winged it,” said his son, attorney David Blackwell of San Francisco. “But I remember how much preparation he put into it, scouring the newspaper for material. I’ve done some public speaking, but I’m not as funny as he was.”

Playful insults were the elder Blackwell’s style, like Don Rickles’. You felt left out if Dave didn’t zing you. But Blackwell could take a joke, too.

“You have to like Dave when you first meet him,” UNO football coach Sandy Buda once told a crowd. ”But sooner or later, he talks you out of it.”

Ha, it’s fun when even the zinger gets zinged. In any case, sports banquets have provided a filling menu for fans, serving up a big helping of sports talk – and then a tasty second course of laughter.


Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.

Going With the Flow

Darius Luff owns the seventh best time in the nation in the 60-meter hurdles.
Darius Luff owns the seventh best time in the nation in the 60-meter hurdles.

Uninterrupted Training Kicks in for Darius Luff

By Steve Beideck • Photos by Scott Bruhn/NU Communications

A return to a consistent training regimen has helped Darius Luff steadily climb Nebraska’s all-time charts in the 60-meter hurdles.

The junior from Lincoln High entered the Feb. 11 Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with one of the best times in the nation at 7.70 seconds. By the time the Huskers boarded the bus to return to Lincoln, Luff had jumped to No. 3 all-time with a career-best 7.67.

That time has Luff tied for No. 7 nationally with Jamar Marshall of Arizona State heading into the Big Ten Conference championship meet Feb. 24-26 in Geneva, Ohio.

Luff credited having a full off-season to train and prepare for the 2022 season after the tumultuous times that disrupted the 2021 indoor campaign.

“With COVID, we didn’t get much time to work out leading into indoor,” Luff said. “We kept getting shut down. We’d have two weeks off, then two weeks on. It was crazy. It’s hard to stay in shape and be able to run fast.

“This year we were working out in the summer, then we had a full fall season to train. That training set me up a lot better to run fast early in the season.”

Nebraska assistant coach Dusty Jonas has been working with Luff since he first joined the team after leading the Links to a Class A state championship and runner-up finish in his final two high school seasons. Jonas said the uninterrupted training is paying off just as he hoped it would.

“I’m not surprised he got out of the blocks so fast right away,” Jonas said. “There’s very little that that young man does that surprises me. He was progressing really well through the fall, and his consistency throughout the year was very good.

“Consistent training has been hard to come by in the age of the Corona virus. This season he’s put together some of the best workouts since he’s been here.”

Luff admitted he surprised himself by posting a personal best time in the first meet of the season, the Graduate Classic in Lincoln on Jan. 15.

“I guess I could say it was a surprise to me but normally I run that fast at the start of the season then get into things,” Luff said. “I’ve always expected it of myself. Ideally you’d want to have a PR (personal record) every week, but that’s just not realistic.”

Luff stayed in the 7.7s the rest of the month and admitted he was disappointed with his second place time of 7.82 at the Feb. 5 Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational.

“I didn’t put a complete race together in either the prelims or the finals,” Luff said. “I’d feel worse if I ran a perfect race and didn’t get faster. A complete race in the prelims or finals would have given me a faster time.”

The difference between those two races showed Luff the level of consistency he strives for is still a work in progress.

“I still have a lot of things I need to work on and get better at,” Luff said. “They were actually different things, something that I’ve struggled with all year. In some races (I get) a great start, then get a little off balance, float a hurdle or two hurdle and not get down as fast as I should.

“Then I won’t get a good start, but once I get over hurdle one, the rest of the race is good. In the prelims I had a good start then didn’t finish as well as I’d like. I didn’t like my start as much in the final. I need to put together a complete race.”

Luff’s father, Scotty, also was a hurdler at Lincoln High and helped introduce him to the sport. He began competing in the USA Track and Field summer program when he was 12. Competing for Peak Performance in Omaha and training in Lincoln, Luff eventually worked his way to national competitions when he was in eighth grade.

“I remember I got second place in the 100-meter hurdles and second in the 200-meter hurdles,” Luff said. “That’s what really motivated me. I knew I was one of the best in Nebraska. It’s a whole different atmosphere for meets out of state, and there I proved to myself I was one of the best in the nation.”

That summer success led Luff to what he said were the best times of his life helping Lincoln High win those two team trophies in his junior and senior seasons.

“Still to this day my experience with high school track was one of the best times in my life,” Luff said. “Just being a part of that team, winning (the state team title) my junior year and getting second my senior year, chasing the state championship as a whole team was special.”

Luff also said working with Jonas and new hurdles coach Brenton Emanuel is making the college experience a memorable one as well.

“Dusty’s been great,” Luff said. “He’s found a good way to keep me motivated. He likes to talk about the other guys I’m racing; he knows how to get me fired up. Knowing he’s been to the Olympics and knows what it takes to get to big meets has been good for me.”

Jonas said he also enjoys working with Luff, learning to push the right buttons at the right time and helping him develop the consistency needed to become one of the nation’s best and, maybe, even the best Nebraska’s ever had.

Jonas said Luff is well on his way.

“Being OK with being pretty good, if you want to be at the top, isn’t good enough. Keeping that edge is important, so you have to poke the bear a little bit,” Jonas said. “He’s got all the tools to be incredibly good. I’ll never say how good because you never know. Don’t want to put a limit on him. With him, the sky’s the limit.”

His coaches believe the sky is the limit for Luff. “I still have a lof of things I need to work on and get better at,” Luff said.
His coaches believe the sky is the limit for Luff. “I still have a lof of things I need to work on and get better at,” Luff said

Top of Her Game


Foundation Set by Her Father Has Led to
Alexis Markowski’s Stellar Freshman Season

Story by Shawn Ekwall

Alexis Markowski has never been one to shy away from hard work.

Countless hours in the gym are a staple of Markowski’s hoops journey. But her fast track to success during her freshman year at Nebraska has caught everyone’s attention.

To some, it’s been a surprising leap. There were skeptics. Could she contribute and play meaningful minutes at a Power Five school? The Lincoln Pius X grad originally committed to South Dakota State in 2019 before switching to NU. But to those who know her story, her quick rise is no shock.

Hoops success runs in the Markowski family. Markowski’s father, Andy, is no stranger to the big stage. The Ord High School product played for former NU men’s coach Danny Nee from 1995 through 1999 and was on the 1998 NCAA tournament team that featured current Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue.

He was a blue-collar player. Defend. Rebound. Set screens. The elder Markowski did the little things through hard work and perseverance.

Andy coached Alexis and her Nebraska Lasers club basketball team from fourth grade all the way through high school. He also served – and continues to serve – as an assistant coach at Lincoln Pius X High School.

So, did dad’s knowledge and passion for the game, as well as his intense practice regimen, rub off on Alexis and her Lasers teammates?

“Yeah, all the time,” Alexis said. “He really prepared me well to be successful at this level. He’s a pretty intense guy and wanted the best for all of us. He really pushed us to be our best.”

The 2021 Lasers class was littered with talent. Players like Grace Cave (Nebraska-Omaha), Molly Ramsey (Kansas State, volleyball) and current NU soccer players Haley Peterson and Briley Hill were part of the program. Nine Division I athletes, according to Andy, played with Alexis at one time or another.

“It was a great group. We were fortunate to play in the top bracket at every event,” Andy said. “Lex got the chance to play against the best posts out there. It helped elevate her confidence.”

Andy said watching the development of his daughter throughout the early years of playing with the Lasers is one of the things he remembers most.

“It was really fun to see Lex continue to develop,” Andy said. “She was one of the taller fourth-graders when we started compared to her peers. And over the years she really learned how to compete as her skills and size continued to grow.”

Admittedly, it took time for those skills to develop, according to Alexis.

“I started Lasers my fourth-grade year, and at first … I was really bad,” she said. “Honestly, my dad was like, ‘I don’t know if we’ll put her on the top team,’ and my mom (Jaime) was like, ‘You’re going to work with her and she’ll get better.’

“I didn’t really like basketball that much at that age, but as I kept doing it, and falling more in love with it, I realized I could be good at it.”

An injury derailed most of her freshman year of high school. A screw was inserted in her foot, and the recovery period was long. Once back full-time as a sophomore, the volleyball and hoops standout started to dominate, and recruiting interest picked up.

She averaged 21.5 points per game as a junior and 23.3 as a senior while leading Pius X to back-to-back Class A state titles in 2020 and 2021. She was named Nebraska’s 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. And since arriving at NU, Markowski has hit the ground running.

She scored 20 points in her first career start, a 79-58 win over No. 8 Michigan on Jan. 4. Twelve days later she posted a career-high 27 points in a 93-83 loss at Iowa. She’s been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week seven times through mid-February.

She’s expanded her game, shooting 56% from the 3-point line while continuing to be a force on the low block. Her presence inside has opened up the perimeter for shooters like Jaz Shelley and Ashley Scoggins.

While her statistical numbers stand out, NU coach Amy Williams lauds Markowski’s fierce competitiveness.

“What I’ve seen out of Alexis and the one thing I know is that she’s a competitor,” Williams said after the Michigan win. “She just wants to compete.”

In a 50-38 win over Rutgers on Feb. 1, Markowski posted a career-high 15 rebounds to go along with 16 points. Williams pointed out the value of having Markowski down low in games where defense rules and shots aren’t falling.

“She’s incredibly valuable in a game like this,” Williams said. “In a game where there’s a lot of rebounds to be had, Lex did a great job coming away with them.”

Both Alexis and Andy agree the “fit” with Alexis choosing to play at Nebraska has been nothing short of terrific.

One of the key factors is being able to play in front of a legion of family and friends. It’s something Alexis doesn’t take for granted.

“That’s why I chose Nebraska,” she said following NU’s 76-61 win over Penn State on Feb. 3. “So I could have all my family and friends here. They’re all really supportive. I had family from South Dakota here today. They’re kind of coming from everywhere and I love it.”

Brookings, South Dakota, home of the Jackrabbits, is four hours from Lincoln. Andy said the thought of not having as many family and friends in attendance nightly was something Alexis weighed when opening up her recruitment.

“She kind of realized it would be hard to play in front of as many family and friends in Brookings,” Andy said. “She has a ton of friends here, from Pius X to her AAU teammates. It’s really important for her to reconnect with so many people after games. Even some she hasn’t seen in years.”

As for the culture and chemistry of the current Huskers? It’s a driving force behind the team’s success.

The roster includes players from Australia, California and West Virginia, for example. Markowski and fellow freshmen Allison Weidner from tiny Humphrey St. Francis and Whitney Brown from Grand Island Northwest are the three Nebraskans on the roster.

“We are all best friends on and off the court,” Alexis said. “I haven’t been on a team that hangs out this much outside the court. It’s not just the little groups here and there. We all hang out. We all love each other, we all want the best for each other and are always there for each other.”

Said Andy: “Winning and competitiveness are key attributes to kids on the team. This team puts winning first. Sometimes there’s different dynamics, where talent trumps character at some places. Not here. The culture of the staff and the locker room is a testament to coach Williams.”

And even though he’s coached his daughter since she was knee-high, some aspects of his daughter’s rapid ascent have surprised even him.

“I felt confident she could have an impact,” Andy said. “Alexis was so much bigger and stronger than most kids in high school. But there’s things she’s done that have surpassed my expectations. Her ability to score consistently against the best posts in the league, for example. Teams are starting to double her, which is surprising. I’d say that has accelerated faster than I thought as a coach and father.”

That acceleration has helped put NU (19-6, 8-6) in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018. The Huskers have won six of their last eight, capped by a huge 72-55 win over No. 5 Indiana on Feb. 14. They own an impressive 14-1 mark at home and have two wins over teams currently ranked in the top 10.

Markowski tied her career-high with 15 rebounds against the Hoosiers, while tallying a double-double with 10 points. She was one of five Huskers to reach double figures as Shelley and Sam Haiby led the way with 14 each. The Huskers used a 17-0 fourth-quarter run to blow open a tight game.

It’s that scoring balance and unselfish play that has Markowski pumped about the team’s ceiling heading down the stretch.

“I think we can be pretty successful in the postseason,” Alexis said. “We’ve beaten some top teams and if we keep working and believing in ourselves, we can go far.”

As far as dad’s outlook? Alexis said he’s happy not only for her personal success, but the overall success of the team.

“I know he’s really happy I’m having a successful year, but also because our team is successful, as well.”

And why wouldn’t he? Hard work leading to success is the Markowski way.

Right on Schedule

Bryce McGowens prepares to throw down an alley-oop against Minnesota. The Huskers went on to win their first Big Ten game of the season over the Gophers, 78-65.
Bryce Mcgowins drives for the slam dunk in the Minnesota game. The Huskers won their first Big 10 game over the Gophers 78-65. HUSKERS ILLUSTRATED PHOTO BY REGGIE RYDER.

As the Huskers Stumble, Bryce McGowens Matures on the Court

Opinion • By Jacob Bigelow • Photos by Reggie Ryder

Just before Nebraska’s first Big Ten win of the season against Minnesota, I was listening to an Omaha radio host describe the situation around Nebraska’s basketball program in brutal terms: “There is no hope, there is no joy,” the voice said. Then he added this hopeful note: “But there is Bryce McGowens.”

This was supposed to be the breakthrough season for Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers, at least in the eyes of the much-tortured fan base. Others questioned the level of expectations not only for the season but for the program as a whole. But as a group, there was excitement and hope over the arrival of McGowens, and this, despite a dismal win-loss record, especially in the Big Ten, and the pitiful way the team looked most of the season, has born out. McGowens, the first five-star recruit to ever sign and come to Nebraska straight out of high school, has been the real deal and has given fans something to cheer about, both on and off the court.

But living up to the hype wasn’t easy. Nor should it have been. Being a freshman is a learning experience, right? Still, McGowens, along with his brother, Trey – perhaps the main reason Bryce chose to come to Nebraska in the first place – were to be in the eyes of Nebraska fans at least, one of the more dynamic backcourts in the Big Ten and possibly even the country. That all changed when Trey broke his foot in the third game of the season against Creighton. A near miraculous recovery had Trey back on the court a mere two months later, but his injury was a big setback for both. Before the team departed for their road game at Iowa on Feb. 13, Trey described Bryce’s struggles when Trey was sidelined, recalling that his younger brother was on the verge of tears and that when they’d talk off the court, “(Bryce) felt like he didn’t want to play at times because it was just so hard for him.”

Those two months were hard for everybody associated with the Huskers.

Anyone who follows the team has noticed the extra pep in Bryce’s step since Trey returned Jan. 17 against Indiana. It shows in Bryce’s statistics as well. In the seven games since Trey’s return, Bryce was averaging 19 points on 41.6% shooting, including 31.4% from 3-point range. That stretch of games included a career-high 29 points against Rutgers. Bryce may even be taking pointers from his older brother on the defensive end where both his effort and output have improved.

Bryce was asked about what has helped him adjust to the Big Ten’s physicality, following a second half in which Rutgers bullied the freshman whenever he touched the ball. He mentioned strength and conditioning and nutrition as keys in his growth and development throughout the season, and he talked about how he feels stronger overall.

You can also see a change in his shot selection, especially from beyond the arc. Couple that with an increase in aggressive takes to the rim, and the freshman is rounding into the one-and-done prospect for which he was tabbed heading into the season.

Disagree? Consider this: At the time of this writing, McGowens’ 16.5 points per game trails only Duke star Paolo Banchero in terms of freshman scoring average among power conference players. Also, McGowens has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week six times. By the end of the season, he may have more freshman-of-the-week awards than his team has victories.

You have to wonder what McGowens’ game may have looked like if his older  brother had remained healthy all season.

In another season to forget, it’s hard to believe that if McGowens leaves for the NBA Draft, he would be Nebraska’s third pick in a four-year span, when prior to Isaiah Roby being selected in 2019, the program hadn’t seen one in the 20 years before that. (For those wondering: Dalano Banton, 2021.)

For me, it’s a bit disturbing to hear some of the criticism directed at this team from around the state. The win-loss record is one thing, but I hear murmurs from some that this Nebraska team has no one fans can relate to. Some even say that no one on the roster is likable. I can tell you that from my perspective as someone who attends many college and high school games, that is a bad rap.

McGowens is a basketball fan, and in his free time he often can be seen in a gym near you taking in a basketball game. He’s attended high school games in multiple cities at various levels and even has been to other college games in the state. The 19-year-old from South Carolina has embraced the basketball community in a state where basketball at all levels is usually an afterthought to football.

So, regardless of how this season comes to a close, the status of the head coach after the season and whether McGowens is one-and-done, Husker fans would be wise to just enjoy every chance they get to watch the young man play and appreciate his contributions. Hopefully, the Huskers can land others like him in the future.

Looking Good in Red

Autumn Haebig's best event is the 200-meter freestyle. She grew up following her sister to swim practice in Wisconsin.
Nebraska Swimmer Autumn Haebig Swimming and Diving vs Iowa

Haebig Has Swam Her Way Into the Husker Record Books

Story by Shawn Ekwall • Photos by NU Sports Information

Competitive swimming has been a way of life for Nebraska fifth-year senior Autumn Haebig.

From years of following her older sister Stephanie’s journey to finding herself immersed in the club and high school scene, it’s always been a busy path.

But admittedly, Haebig originally didn’t find a fondness for the sport.

“I got dragged along to every swim meet of my sister’s when I was young,” Haebig said. “I hated it at first. I actually quit when I was 10 and rejoined when I was 11.”

It didn’t take long for a strong passion to develop. Success followed. And since finding her groove, Haebig emerged as one of Wisconsin’s top high school swimmers, winning 14 events and finishing runner-up twice over four years at the state meet for Grafton High School.

It was at that point that Haebig began to ponder swimming at the next level.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I could do this and continue for another four or five years.’”

With a nudge from her Ozaukee Aquatics Club coach and former NU swimmer Steve Keller, Haebig decided to take a recruiting visit to Lincoln.

“He was like, ‘You know, you’d look good in red,’” Haebig remembers.

Once on campus, Haebig was hooked. With former Husker Erin Oeltjen as her tour host, Haebig came away impressed with the family-like atmosphere and the academic support systems in place to help NU athletes thrive.

“My trip was so much fun,” she said. “The sense of family within the team really stuck with me. It was so genuine. And the overall experience for student-athlete life and academic support was amazing.”

To say Haebig has flourished during her five years at NU would be an understatement. Her best event is the 200 freestyle, in which she is the reigning Big Ten champion. Her career-best and winning time of 1:44.39 in Minneapolis gave NU its first-ever individual champion at the conference meet, and she was the Huskers’ first champion since Lauren Bailey won the 1,650 free at the Big 12 meet in 2007.

The moment produced a scene that seemed almost surreal.

“Honestly, I’m not even sure if I still process it,” Haebig said about the aftermath of her win. “You’re in your own world up there on the podium and they play your school song when they announce your name. After I got off the podium, I got so many huge hugs and so much love and support from people at that moment.”

Haebig would go on to tally 11 points at the national championships. She earned All-American status in both the 200 free (ninth place) and 500 free (14th) while helping NU to a 26th-place finish, its best showing since 2001.

She’s continued to shine after deciding to use her fifth and final year of eligibility. Her list of accolades at NU is long. She holds five individual school records, and she is aiming to trim her school-record time in the 500 free from 4:41.83 down to 4:40.

With a competitive practice environment spawned by a team that long-time NU coach Pablo Morales calls “the best group of swimmers we’ve had” and a team chemistry that Haebig said has “definitely grown” over her five years, anything is possible.

“This year the team is really together and unified,” she said. “There’s just so much positivity from the other girls on the team and the coaches. You can just feel the energy.”

Haebig is quick to credit her family for their endless support and encouragement. Competitive swimming, like all club sports, can be costly and time consuming. And watching mom (Linda) and dad (Steve) take older sister to practices and meets was an eye-opening experience.

“My sister’s the reason why I even started swimming,” Haebig said. She ended up swimming at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater “and she kept me going.”

“Mom and dad have always supported me and have always been there for me over the years, too.”

And when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports during the second semester of 2020, Haebig was able to train at home as mom and dad made healthy meals and did whatever they could to provide the support she needed.

“I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Grafton, with a population shy of 12,000, is just north of Milwaukee. Following the season and school year, Haebig is planning to return home to find a job.

“I know my career is slowly winding down,” she said. “My goal is to make the NCAAs for a fourth time and hopefully get on a podium. I definitely want it to end with a bang.”

Primed For a Run

Ridge Lovett celebrates his 11-3 major decision over Michigan’s Pat Nolan at 149 pounds during a dual meet in Lincoln.
Ridge Lovett celebrates his 11-3 major decision over Michigan’s Pat Nolan at 149 pounds during a dual meet in Lincoln.

NU Gaining Momentum for Big Ten Title

Story by Shane G. Glister

This season hasn’t gone the way Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning hoped it would.

“I had planned on us going undefeated,” he said, tongue in cheek. “But I have been here long enough to know that it doesn’t always go the way you plan. People get injured, the COVID effect, guys who were freshmen last year are freshmen again, and pulling someone out of a redshirt is a tough deal. Because of injuries, we were short three to four starters in our first couple Big Ten duals. But all of our goals are still in front of us, and when healthy, this team is a tough matchup for anyone.”

That’s good news for the Huskers as their guys are healthy just in time for the Big Ten Wrestling Championships. This marks the first time since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 that the conference meet will be held in Nebraska. The event will be at Pinnacle Bank Arena March 5-6.

The Huskers have never won a Big Ten team wrestling title, finishing third last year behind Iowa and Penn State. Even if they don’t bring home a championship this year, hosting the event will have benefits.

It is a great opportunity for us to highlight our program and bring our fans and see the Big Ten tournament in our venue,” Manning said. “It will only be here once every 13 years. It is a great opportunity to highlight our sport and get local people more up to date on how great the sport of wrestling is and how great our guys are as competitors in our program.”

If  NU does make history and win the Big Ten, they will have to do it in the toughest wrestling conference in the nation. Penn State, Iowa and Michigan are ranked 1, 2 and 3 nationally. The Huskers have gotten as high as No. 8, and even though they lost to those top three teams during the season, they were not hugely outmatched.

We are just around the corner to be at the top of the Big Ten and are right there with Iowa and Penn State,” said NU’s 149-pound sophomore Ridge Lovett. “I have been three years in the program and we are making strides each year to get to the top. There are just some mental blocks that are holding us back. I don’t think our team knows how good they are yet. We are better than what we have shown. I totally expect to bring home a team trophy this year but it is going to take everybody wrestling to their full capabilities.”

Christian Lance won by decision over Purdue’s Michael Woulfe, 11-4, at heavyweight.
Christian Lance won by decision over Purdue’s Michael Woulfe, 11-4, at heavyweight.

The senior class is led by Eric Schultz, Chad Red Jr., Taylor Venz and Christian Lance. Manning praises his seniors for leading the way, as they gain momentum going into the postseason.

“I think the senior class has come together to reach their individual and team goals,” Manning said. “Schultz is ‘Steady Eddie,’ CJ (Red) has been wrestling well, Venz has wrestled better than people are seeing, and Christian Lance has had a really good year. We will need all those guys to come through for us.”

All four seniors have a great shot to secure high placements in the Big Ten meet with Schultz and Red being capable of making it to the finals. Last year, Lance was fifth at 285, Red finished fourth at 141, Venz and Schultz were both second at 184 and 197, respectively.

With the help of this senior class, the thought is Nebraska should do just as well or better performing in front of a home crowd. Schultz feels the seniors’ approach to each match helps the underclassmen wrestle at their best.

“We’re all more lead-by-example guys,” he said. “We aren’t super talkative or demanding in a vocal way, but work hard and push our teammates that way. We show the younger guys the best path to succeed when they are older.”

Those younger guys include Jeremiah Reno (125), Dominick Serrano (133),     Peyton Robb (157), Bubba Wilson (165), Mikey Labriola (174) and Lovett. All are in NU’s starting lineup.

Serrano and Reno have had a tough go of it this season. They are in their second year in the program, but as redshirts last year they didn’t get in any open tournaments to boost their development. They had to learn on the fly this year against Big Ten competition. Reno’s first four matches in the Big Ten were against four All-Americans.

“Reno has earned the respect of his teammates, because he fought hard every time. Against the No. 6 guy in the country at Penn State, he wrestled tight as heck,” Manning said. “That shows a lot of moxie and integrity.”

Serrano and Reno are not expected to go deep in the Big Ten meet, but one guy who could surprise is Wilson.

“From the start of the season till now, Bubba Wilson has improved a lot,” Schultz said. “He is one of the hardest workers I have met. He is internally motivated. Losses upset him but he doesn’t let them affect him that much. He accepts them, learns from them and gets back to work right away. He is always asking questions and learning.”

It’s not out of the question that a handful of Huskers might come out on top in their respective weight classes. Manning tells his wrestlers that just because the Big Ten Championships are in Lincoln, the path to becoming a champion is just as hard as it would be somewhere else, it is just a little more convenient.

“Ridge Lovett, Eric Schultz, Mickey Labriola, CJ Red and Peyton Robb all have the capability to win it,” Manning said. “People might sleep on Taylor Venz because he has Aaron Brooks from Penn State in his weight class. But he is capable of beating Brooks. Would it be the biggest upset I’ve ever seen? No, not at all.”

Lovett said wrestling at home is an advantage. “I am going to sleep in my bed and do the same things I do every day,” he said. “I live right across the street from Pinnacle Bank. It is in my time zone, in my town. I have upped my attack rate and added different attacks on my feet. I am super confident on the mat top and bottom. Everything is coming together for me now.”

If Lovett and the other wrestlers Manning mentioned finish at the top or close to it, the team title would be within Nebraska’s grasp.

In the last couple of weeks, our guys are getting back into shape and are peaking now,” Schultz said. “To overtake the Penn States and Iowas, it just takes a few guys getting a few more bonus point wins in their matches. If everyone starts clicking at the same time and gets a few bonus-point wins and a few upsets, we have a shot.”

Ted’s Takes

Ted Kirk is a Lincoln-based photographer who has been a photojournalist since 1970. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native covered Nebraska Athletics from 1973 through 2018. During that span he covered thousands of Husker Athletic competitions around the United States. His work is being donated to the University of Nebraska Library Photo Archive.
Ted Kirk is a Lincoln-based photographer who has been a photojournalist since 1970. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native covered Nebraska Athletics from 1973 through 2018. During that span he covered thousands of Husker Athletic competitions around the United States. His work is being donated to the University of Nebraska Library Photo Archive.
Jim Hartung peforms on the rings during a meet at the Devaney Center during the 1981 season.
2020 03 31 001
Nebraska’s Carl McPipe shoots over Kansas center Paul Mokeski at the Devaney Center during a 62-58 win over the Jayhawks in 1978.