Addison Thompson and her fellow Omaha South High marching musicians are accustomed to practicing in a parking lot, pretending that nearby trees are the stadium press boxes where band judges sit.
The band also rehearsed behind a chain-link and barbed-wire fence at South's Collin Field, about three blocks from the high school. Commonly known as “The Hole,” it was South's football and soccer practice yard. The field had little grass, no lights and often indiscernible lines. It lay below a hill choked with volunteer trees, weeds and trash.
For varsity competitions, even home games, athletes and musicians all boarded buses and rode to somebody else's real stadium.
That was the drill for more than three years for Thompson, now a senior, as she worked her way up to trumpet section leader in a growing, improving band. Practices at “The Hole” and bus rides to home games have been the routine for South students and athletes for decades.
So you can imagine the thrill the young people felt last week when they first stepped onto the artificial turf of their sparkling new, $8.7 million home stadium. An NCAA-regulation soccer field, designed with hosting the state tournament in mind. Lights. Seating for 3,200 people, including gleaming, Packer-red home team stands. A sloping grass seating area for sports and community arts events. A concession stand. Team meeting rooms. A scoreboard. Two press boxes.
“Oh, my,” Thompson said. “The first time we went there to practice, people were sprinting across the field. People lay down and kissed the field. It has shredded tire stuff in it, so they had this black stuff stuck to their cheeks when they stood up. It was awesome.”
South has yet to play a game on the new Collin Field, 2002 M St. The first football contest will be Friday, versus Bryan.
The Kiewit Building Group wrapped up construction this week. The nonprofit Heritage Services, which managed the project and helped raise money, and the Omaha Public Schools will dedicate the field at 7:45 p.m. Sunday.
Donors and dignitaries will ride in yellow school buses to the Collin Field festivities from a dinner at the Livestock Exchange building. The buses were the idea of Union Pacific Railroad Chairman Jim Young, a 1970 South High graduate. He and his wife, Shirley, were leaders in the Heritage Services effort.
The stadium creates an opportunity for kids across the city and state to participate in sports in south Omaha, said Sue Morris, president of Heritage Services.
“People come to each other's neighborhoods,” she said.
Officially, the project was a renovation of Collin Field. In reality, it transformed “The Hole” into a modern stadium in a bowl.
“South High used to have some of the worst facilities in the city,” said Steve Cavlovic, who remembers talk of building a stadium in “The Hole” from his student days in the 1940s. “Now, it has some of the best and newest facilities in the city. There's nothing in town any better than this.”
And the field's inspiring more pride at South High School and in the surrounding community.
“There's a renewed sense of excitement around here, and the stadium is part of that,” said Cara Riggs, South's principal.
Exhibit A: Student participation, which had languished in many South activities, is up in just about everything. Eighty-seven kids went out for new coach Fred Doscher's football program. That's still a small number for metropolitan Omaha, but almost double last season's 45. More kids are running cross country and playing softball, volleyball, baseball, tennis and golf.
Overall school enrollment is up about 100 students to just over 1,700.
The new blood includes several south Omaha athletes who would have gone elsewhere if not for the new stadium, said Roni Huerta, South High athletic director.
“For me, it was the new stadium and the new coach,” 6-foot-4, 220-pound freshman Sam Andrews said during practice Wednesday.
Addison Thompson and fellow senior musicians Andy Cervantes and Henry Fernandez perceive a much more positive vibe about South, inside and out.
“It (the field) is bright. It's fun,” Thompson said. “It gives you something to brag about.”
That must be music to Young's ears. He said Heritage Services members focus on big projects that make a difference.
“It goes way beyond a football and soccer field,” he said. “I don't care if you're a Fortune 150 company or a high school, attitude, pride and teamwork all start with where you show up to work every day.”
Young said sports facilities are part of the education picture that prepares Omaha's work force. He said OPS had invested well in South's magnet programs of information technology and performing arts. But Collin Field — well, it hadn't improved much since Young took his share of scrapes playing football in “The Hole.”
Or since Cavlovic heard people saying in 1945 that the place would make a good natural bowl football stadium.
Why did it finally happen?
In 2005, OPS supporters Dave and Carol Van Metre were helping raise money to renovate South baseball and softball fields. Dave Van Metre, who had no personal connection to South Omaha, went by Collin Field. He was appalled and inspired.
“This could be like the Rose Bowl,” Van Metre started telling people. “Picture the crowd going in with the lights and music coming up from the field.”
Omaha architect Tim Holland, a South alumnus, signed on to design the stadium. Other alumni promised help and in-kind services. Then came the big first down that kept the drive alive. Susie Buffett's Sherwood Foundation pledged a large challenge grant, the amount of which still hasn't been disclosed.
The OPS board promised to pay 25 percent of the cost. Morris and Heritage Services carried the ball from there.
The students say they're ready to run with it now.
“I love it,” said senior Jordan Frezell, starting Packer quarterback since his sophomore year. “There's a new vibe. Everybody's pumped up for it.”
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