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Best of 2018: These Are a Few of Our Favorite Things

December 31, 2018

All this week the Hail Varsity staff will be selecting its Best of 2018 in multiple categories across any sport the Huskers played. It’s a way to remember the year that was, but also some of these selections may have notes of the future for Nebraska athletics and we’re all thinking at least a little bit about the future right now, right?

This time out we let our staff members pick their favorite “thing” of 2018. What’s a thing? Could be anything, as long as it was good.

Erin Sorensen: As I reflect on this last year there are many “best” moments in it. There were also some challenging moments, like the day I learned I’d lost my job. It was a weird day, knowing I wasn’t the first to lose my job in the world of journalism and I wouldn’t be the last. That’s just how it goes in this industry anymore. You can’t take any day for granted.

Within two hours of losing my job, my phone rang. “Would you be interested in returning to Hail Varsity?” My emotions took a very quick 180-degree turn in those two hours. While I was still disheartened to see something I took a chance on end so abruptly, I was overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of returning to something else I loved so much.

Here’s the thing about Hail Varsity: It’s incredible. And for me, Hail Varsity was absolutely one of the “best” things about 2018. It’s been one of the bests for years, in fact.

Hail Varsity has allowed me to tell incredible stories in my own way. Very few places would grant me over a month’s time to tell a story like the one I had the absolute privilege to tell about safety Tre Neal. What was originally supposed to be a Q&A for a fall issue turned into something much bigger, and that month and subsequent story honestly became a “best” thing for me in 2018, too.

That wasn’t all. There was the story about Eileen Jensen, the 85-year-old woman who attended her very first Nebraska football game this year. Jensen and her family sent me a thank you card for that story, sharing how much it meant to them. If only I could express to them how much it meant to me.

There was the story about Nebraska’s long snapping position, which special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt spent more time than he needed rehashing with me after a late-September practice. When the long snapper-to-punter questions came up that following Saturday though? Dewitt had already given me the answers.

There was Dorothy Mattea, the 90-year-old grandmother of Nebraska defensive end Ben Stille. Her story was shared during Nebraska’s six game losing streak, and it became one we all needed to hear. I now look eagerly every game day for the Stille family because I know a hug from Mattea is on the other end and a few words of wisdom I don’t take for granted.

And there was the story about Alex Henery’s record-setting kick 10 years later. What started as an opportunity to catch up with Henery turned into a phone call to former Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz and holder Jake Wesch. It ended with a cool moment between current Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez and kicker Barrett Pickering. After Pickering’s big game against Michigan State, I had a text waiting from Henery: “Tell Pickering great job for me!!!”

I could go on and on, but I think I’ll call it quits for now. Hail Varsity has been the “best” thing for me in 2018, and I’m excited for the future because I know there are so many more incredible stories out there waiting to be told. I can only imagine what 2019 holds, and I’m so glad I get to spend it with Hail Varsity and all of you.

Eric Francis
Nebraska safety Tre Neal

Jacob Padilla: I’m going to follow Erin’s lead here and reflect back on one of my favorite stories I wrote this year. It’s titled “The Captain Class,” and it is about Luke Gifford and his two younger brothers, all three of whom were captains for their respective football teams this year.

The assist on this story goes to Erin, as she was the one who heard about the brothers’ shared leadership roles, but she asked if I would be interested in writing it instead and I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve known the eldest Gifford for a while now – I covered a couple of his basketball games back during his senior year of high school – and have a good relationship with him.

As part of my preparation to write the story, I attended Lincoln Southeast’s game against Lincoln Pius X and sat with Luke as he watched his brother Isaac, a junior linebacker and captain for the Knights, play. Their younger brother, Nathaniel, is a sophomore and captain for the reserve team, though he also plays junior varsity and suits varsity. He got into a couple varsity games this season, but not that night against Pius.

As I sat there and listened to Luke watch his younger brother play, I couldn’t help but identify with him. My own brother, Jordan, is a freshman at Midland playing basketball for their JV team. I coached him all the way through grade school and during AAU basketball while he was in high school, and I made it to as many of his high school games as I could. I made a lot of similar comments about my own brother that Luke was making about Isaac. The combination of hypercriticism and immense pride that was clear in Luke’s voice during that game I’m sure is obvious to those around me in the stands while Jordan plays even now.

My favorite part of this job is finding a really cool story that I can’t wait to share with others, and “The Captain Class” was certainly one of those. Luke Gifford has been fun and easy to work with over the last four years I’ve been covering the Nebraska football team, and I doubt the turnaround that we saw this season would have happened without guys like Gifford leading the way and setting the tone.

I’m glad I was able to give fans a little glimpse into Gifford and his background and the situations that have made him the leader he became.

Derek Peterson: My favorite thing in sports is when teams go away from the field to do something bigger than the sport itself, especially college teams. Just a reminder that there are more important things and it’s always a good sign when the people in charge recognize that.

Nebraska went out to local hospitals for Thanksgiving to visit some patients and make a holiday a little more special. It was a tradition before Scott Frost got to town and he wanted to make sure it stayed a tradition.

“The more our players can be reminded of how much of a role model they are to the people and young kids of this state, the better for our team,” Frost said around the time.

There were five spots different members of the team hit — Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, Bryan LGH East, CHI Health St. Elizabeth, VA (Veterans) Hospital and the Nebraska Heart Institute — and guys spent around an hour at each of the five. Media was allowed to go watch at several spots but the public didn’t even need us there to see what went on, players and patients alike flooded social media with feel-good pictures. (Just for good measure, here’s the video Erin put together.)

Frost talks all the time about wanting not just good football players but good people in his program at Nebraska, people with high character and people who understand the impact they can have on other peoples’ lives. You see signs of that all the time; you see players stopping to sign autographs for or take pictures with any kid that comes up to them.

I said a bunch throughout this first season that Nebraska is in as good of hands as can be under Frost because of the culture he promotes. It’s a winning culture, but it’s a culture that places value on the right things.

Greg Smith: My best thing is an event that was highly anticipated but gets lost in the shuffle because of what happened after It occurred. My choice is Scott Frost first time leading the Tunnel Walk as the coach of Nebraska.

Sure, he did it for the spring game but that was just a practice run. Enjoy the moment thanks to BTN.

Of course, the game wasn’t played after a long delay and the season didn’t start quite like most planned. However, that 1 minute and 35 second video will always be a part of Husker history and so I’ve made it my best thing.

Nebraska Basketball player shooting for a basket

John S. Peterson
Nebraska’s Uniform of the Year

Brandon Vogel: Despite a some-good, some-bad alternate uniform for Nebraska football this year –– it did look better in person, I must admit –– I’m calling 2018 a good year overall for Husker uniforms.

Nebraska basketball’s new red alternate with a script-Nebraska is good enough to make that statement true all on its own. Tim Miles seems to have an affinity for old-school Nebraska logos. It’s not uncommon to see him in a polo featuring the long lost Basketball Herbie (still waiting for that to make it on a uniform, maybe 2019 is the year). While script-Huskers has become familiar again since its revival a few years ago, script-Nebraska feels fresh and retro at the same time.

It’s excellent.

Honorable Mention: I loved it when Nebraska volleyball came out in all-black for the national-championship match against Stanford. Defense is the identity of that program and 2018 was yet another strong performance on that front. All-black for the biggest match of the year was a subtle sign that the Huskers were there to defend one more time.

Special Merit: I’ve long advocated for Nebraska to bring back the Blackshirt helmet decals of the 1990s. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surpise given the staff’s familiarity with Husker tradition, but the decals made a comeback this year. While not exactly the same as what was once worn, I like the additional nod to one of Nebraska’s great traditions.

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