Many Nebraska kids grow up hearing stories about Cornhusker football legends such as Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Tommie Frazier. Fall Saturday's are as much community gatherings as much as they are football games.
In this state, college football is king.
But in Kearney, Neb., baseball is catching up.
The Kearney all-stars reaching this year's Little League Baseball World Series are the latest success story this town has produced in a long series that spans several different levels. Football is loved, but Kearney is a baseball-passionate town.
"This year is truly a community-based effort. The kids obviously have come up to our camps and been part of the program, but the university has had success and the (American) Legion team has been ultra successful the last 25 years," said Damon Day, the Nebraska University Kearney baseball coach and a Kearney Little League board member. "We've always had good baseball and a lot comes down to how well the community supports its youth activities."
Kearney Little League is at the heart of those activities and always has been fondly embraced. That has helped Kearney become the state's dominant program, winning four of the last five state championships and reaching the Midwest final the past two seasons.
This year, Kearney has taken the next step, becoming the first team in state history to reach the Series. Just like the teams above them, this team has raised the bar for future Kearney Little League teams while taking the league to new heights.
"We were talking the other day about how Kearney is a good baseball community and how a lot of good teams have come through here," Kearney Little League board member Ken Masker said. "It's a little surprising that no team from Nebraska has ever made it, but it reinforces how big a deal this is for our kids to make it. It's quite unbelievable."
"If you look at our town, our Legion team is always one of the best in the state and the Nebraska-Kearney always has a good team and a great coach (Day) and he's involved with our board and helps the team out," Kearney manager Brad Wegner said. "People always think Nebraska is all football, but it's also big on baseball."
That has been most evident this summer as Kearney has captivated its entire state with its historic run. From Omaha to Lincoln, Kearney is giving the Cornhuskers a run for their money. It is the culmination of what the college, Legion, high school and youth baseball teams have been doing for years.
The high school team has won numerous district championships and Day's college team has won three conference championships while coming within three outs of reaching the Division II World Series last year. Day said 30 percent of his players have Kearney ties and the results speak for themselves. Those players are accustomed to winning and arrive at college, eager to build on that tradition.
Really, it has become a cycle of excellence in Kearney. Players these days are born into a tradition and grow up eager to sustain and build on it. Those who start playing in Kearney Little League know about the success previous teams have had and so it goes at the higher levels. None want to be the team that breaks the winning chain. Thus, they not only expect to win, but know they have to emulate the hard workers that came before them to do so.
"Our travel teams have said you have to keep playing Little League because Kearney has always been a Little League town and always wins," Wegner said. "There is a tradition and legacy so all our best players stick around. People love the baseball here when we get it going."
What its Little League team is doing this summer might make Kearney baseball stronger than ever in the future. The players have endured hectic schedules, outstanding opponents throughout the country and the kind of pressure most baseball players do not encounter until they at least reach high school. They have had a taste of the big-time and know what it takes to achieve greatness.
Keep working hard and these players someday could form the foundation for outstanding Legion, high school and college teams. They already know they can achieve anything and make history.
"I think this is something that once a team does it, they start thinking about the possibilities," Masker said. "Once one team does something like this it increases the belief for the future and who know what happens from this point forward."
Day and his players have worked with this group at various camps the last few years and are impressed with the skills they are displaying at a young age. The game is not easy, but sometimes these players make it look that way. Kearney outscored its state opponents 81-3 before going 6-0 at the Midwest Regional.
No wonder Day is so excited about the future. No wonder Kearney is such a big baseball town despite being in the middle of a huge football state.
"It's a gold-star standard for the state of Nebraska. Kearney is first to do it and now all the other teams will be compared to it," Day said. "Any time you look at a successful team you peel back the layers because it just wasn't one team. They are representing all the teams before them. What they have been able to is not a destination, but a culmination of everybody's efforts.
"They are the barrier-breakers and have shown everybody in Nebraska what is possible when you put your mind to it."