The Omaha Burke Bulldogs fell to Bellevue West on Nov. 8, 2019, in the second round of the playoffs, ending a strong season at 9-2. They would have to wait 656 days before their next game as the Omaha Public Schools district canceled the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
OPS football players had to watch every Friday as every other school in the Metro played under the lights.
On Thursday night, it was finally the Bulldogs’ turn to take the field as they ran out for the opening kickoff at Faiman Field just after 7 p.m. Their first opponent was also the last team they played: Bellevue West.
“It was great to be back and get back on the field playing again,” Burke coach Paul Limongi told Hail Varsity. “It’s been a long layoff, two years, and it was exciting. We didn’t know what quite to expect but we know what we’ve got to work on now.”
The Thunderbirds, led by a slew of Division I recruits at the skill positions, playmakers all over the defense and a lot of size in the trenches on both sides of the ball, entered the season ranked No. 1 in the state and they looked every bit the part on Thursday, blowing out the Bulldogs 58-14.
“We did some good things,” Limongi said. “We had some penalties in that first half that kind of put us behind the eight ball and our kids just aren’t used to playing and it’s hot and we couldn’t be outside a lot during the week so it was just tough. It was a tough way to start but we’ll learn from it and get better from it.”
Burke had players dropping throughout the hot and humid night with cramps and minor injuries. The Bulldogs hit double digits in penalties, ranging from false starts (on back-to-back plays), multiple delays of game and 12 men on the field on the procedure side to encroachment, personal fouls and holding during and after the action. Burke also had five plays with bad or dropped snaps resulting in nearly 50 yards in losses and a safety as one of the snaps sailed out of the back of the end zone on an attempted punt. The Bulldogs also lost two fumbles.
Burke’s first drive? Bad snap exchange for a 4-yard loss, an off-target pass, a dropped pass and that snap through the end zone. Burke found itself trailing 9-0 right out of the gates.
“We had three guys out here that have ever played a varsity football game,” Limongi said. “You’ve got a new snapper, you’ve got new kickers, you’ve got a new quarterback, you’ve got a brand new offensive line, you’ve got a brand new defensive line, I mean everybody. So it’s a learning experience and we’ve got to get better, and there’s a lot to fix but we’re excited to do it.”
The three players with varsity experience are linebacker Devon Jackson (a Division I recruit), linebacker Alec Cook and running back Donovan Moody. Burke also has three freshmen on its varsity roster including two starters.
“They’re going to be tough kids and I kind of felt bad for them a little bit after they’re thrown into the fire, and they hung in there,” Limongi said. “We had a quarterback making his first start, we had kickers that never put on a football helmet before a month ago. It is what it is; nobody said it would be easy.”
One need only look at the program to understand the reality of what missing a year of football has done to OPS rosters. Bellevue West’s roster included 65 players while Burke’s listed just 32. Limongi said losing last season was so painful because of what it could have done for the program, not only to have a good season last year but to gain experience for the future including 2021.
“These guys would have gotten some valuable experience, they would have learned how to — I mean, we didn’t know how to do our pregame warmup, we didn’t know what to say coming out of the locker room,” Limongi said. “A lot of that was my fault because I assumed, and that’s wrong. We have a saying and they’re like, ‘What’s the saying?’ We didn’t know what to do at halftime, warmup, we didn’t warm up.”
The final score was lopsided, but the Bulldogs showed some fight even after all the early miscues. After falling into that 9-0 hole, the Burke defense dug deep and and stopped Bellevue West’s standout running back LJ Richardson short on fourth-and-2 inside the Burke 30. The Bulldogs turned the ensuing possession into points with a 54-yard bomb over the top to Trae Starks.
Bellevue West tacked on two more touchdowns to pull ahead 23-7, but Burke answered again as quarterback Cooper Katskee hit tight end Cayden Echternach up the right side for a huge gain on the first play of the drive. Bellevue West safety Preston Ames knocked Echtnernach out at the 2 to save a touchdown, but Moody punched it in on the next play.
The Bulldogs ran out of answers after that, however. Bellevue West gave Burke a free possession with a backwards pass that bounced off the intended receiver’s feet and into a Bulldog’s hands, but Burke couldn’t capitalize on it. Following a fourth-down sack, Bellevue West quarterback Luke Johannsen hit Burke with a 60-yard touchdown by sophomore Huskers target Dae’vonn Hall on the first play. After a Burke three-and-out Bellevue West struck again with Hall, this time a 35-yard catch and run to the end zone. Bellevue West took a 37-14 lead into halftime and Burke didn’t score in the second half.
“We’ve got some playmakers, we’ve got some talent, and we hit some plays,” Limongi said. “We could have hit some others; we had a great opportunity down here to tie it in the middle of the second quarter. But it’s just that game experience that we lack right now and the fact of some of our guys just aren’t used to the physicality and the conditioning, endurance it takes to play through a varsity game.”
Playing the best of the best in their return to competition gave Limongi and the Bulldogs a chance to learn a lot about where they are at the start of the season, and where they most need to improve.
“We’ve got to get tougher,” Limongi said. “We’ve got to get mentally and physically tougher and we’ve got to get some maturity and be able to handle some adversity. We just need reps, we need game experience. We had a week where we only hit one day because of the heat; I mean, we can’t afford to do that. We’ve got to focus on getting better.”
Thursday was a big game for the Thunderbirds too. They were supposed to play the Bulldogs in their opener last year and couldn’t find a replacement opponent once OPS dropped out. Bellevue West had to wait until Sept. 4 to open the season against Bellevue West, and then the Thunderbirds had to wait two more weeks to play again. Bellevue West only played five regular season games total last year.
“I didn’t realize that; everybody kept asking me about it and I was talking to Keegan [Johnson] and I was actually talking to [NSAA assistant director] Nate Neuhaus,” Bellevue West coach Michael Huffman said. “He was talking about how he wants to do those wildcard points and he goes, ‘Mike, you only had like three games that counted.’ I’m like, ‘Holy smokes, that’s ridiculous.’ So, it’s nice to get out here and have a normal week …
“But it’s nice to be back out and I’m happy for Burke. Coach Limongi will get them going. They’re one of the best coaching staffs out there.”
Burke, like all OPS schools, is facing an uphill battle this season after missing out on an entire season of competition. However, the Bulldogs are looking forward to that grind and are grateful for the opportunity to play once again.