Lessons learned when Omaha South boys soccer won it all in 2013 inform the way coach Joe Maass does things now, following last year’s second state title. He not only draws on that earlier experience but on a recent family challenge and the expertise of fellow coaches.
Heavy graduation losses from last year’s championship team have him invoking “a Bill Belichick approach,” he said, referring to the New England Patriots head coach. “The Patriots don’t always have the best players, yet he’ll grab somebody’s second-team player or a late round draft pick and make them a fit for his system. We’ve focused a lot more on working hard in practice then maybe we did the year after we won it the first time.”
Hard work rubs off the youth on so many new faces.
“We feel like our talent level could drop off because we’re younger,” Maass said. “We only have four or five seniors, so we’ve had to just kind of bring a blue-collar mentality to it.”
He said his Packers reflect South Omaha’s personality.
“Blue-collar tough. That’s South Omaha to me. We’re not the biggest, but we’ll bang with you if you want.”
Attitude’s everything for this perennial power everyone wants to take down.
“These guys have to remember they play for South. Every team we play approaches it like the World Cup, so we can’t let up or coast. The fact we’re defending state champions just adds to it. The first time we won it we took it serious but I didn’t realize how serious it had to be. This time it’s been more of a business-like approach.”
Twin brothers Issac and Israel Cruz, along with Emilio Margarito, are top returnees who model high expectations.
“Those guys get it. The trick is getting some of the younger guys to. Like we’re starting a freshman and a sophomore. But a lot of new players are buying into the culture those older guys set. It’s good to see.”
Regarding the Cruz boys, he said, “They’ve been starting since their freshman year. They’ve always been leaders. Everyone respects them. It’s just how it is. They set the standard.”
“Same thing for Emilio Margarito. He’s a team captain now.”
Maass believes in open competition at practice. Nobody’s spot is guaranteed.
“If they don’t work hard, they’ll be called out. Every day you’re competing.”
This year even more so because of injuries.
“There’s been a lot of attrition – more than we’ve had in years. One of the things we talk about is next man up.”
That mantra’s extended from preseason tryouts for open spots to now and it’s already paid dividends.
With returning goalkeeper Adrian Feliz out due to injury, his spot came down to two players until one quit. That gave the job to Jeramiah Gonzales, whose brilliant opening weekend performance included a shutout of Burke in his first career start, followed by five stops of penalty kicks in a shootout against South Sioux City.
“Extraordinary,” is how Maass described what Gonzales did. “I’ll probably never see it in my lifetime again.”
He said when Felix comes back, he won’t automatically step into the starter role. He’ll have to earn it.
“They will be competing every day.”
Since Maass adopted next-man-up as a team philosophy, he said, “it feels like things are working better – there’s a lot more team harmony.” He added, “Back in the day, with some hot shot kids who wanted to do things their way it caused problems. We might have won, but it wasn’t fun.”
Forward Jose Hernandez is another player who, Maass said, “gets it.” “He was promoted from the sophomore team to the varsity for the Tennessee (Smoky Mountain) tournament last year and he scored the goal that helped us beat one team. He scored the first goal at state last year coming off the bench. He knows this is what you have to do. It’s not how many minutes you get, it’s what you do with them.”
Now in his 18th year, Maass has learned patience.
“We tell our kids, ‘Don’t worry about the first few games, let’s worry about games 17-18.’ As long as we’re clicking at the end, it doesn’t even matter what we’re doing right now. We just have to figure each other out and get better every day.”
His own priorities got a reality check last year when his wife Ann, an ESL instructor at South, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemo treatments and a double mastectomy later, the cancer’s in remission.
“When it first hits you, your whole life just kind of spins.”
During Ann’s illness he took a more active hand in their two young children’s lives and extracurricular activities.
“I even contemplated stepping down as coach to be a better family man, but at the end of the day we managed it, and here I am. I want to win games and championships but helping younger kids is probably more important after this.”
Having taken South soccer from the bottom to the top, he’s focused on maintaining excellence.
“I just want to keep it moving along.”
He readily acknowledges assistant coaches have helped South become a dynasty.
“I’m not afraid to go out and find someone who challenges me as a coach and who on top of that can run drills and do things at a higher level than myself.
“We evolve with every coach we bring in.”
By May, South aims to win its district, return to state and compete for another title. Packer coaches, players and fans expect it. But, Maass said, “the key is to get there.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.