Commentary

Changing the games for Hispanic girls

Updated: March 25, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Neb. -- The Tyson factory coughs white puffs of smoke, and on windy days, the smell of money can be whiffed two miles away at the high school. Meat-packing changed this town. The Buggy Whip clothing store is still here, with the giant horse on the roof and a sign out front that says "HOWDY!" But lining the brick streets now are an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet, a tortilla bakery and a store that sells immigration ID photos.

Then again, some things don't change. Across town, the Lexington High School Minutemaids are winding up basketball practice, a small gathering of teenage girls hunkering down for districts. In a school of about 800 students -- 75 percent Hispanic -- the team has 15 players. And all but one of them is white.

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Elizabeth MerrillLexington, Neb., has seen a shift toward a higher Hispanic population.

The numbers shouldn't be all that surprising, even in this hidden hub of cultural diversity just off Interstate 80 in southwestern Nebraska. National studies show that Hispanic girls account for some of the lowest percentages of participation in interscholastic sports.

It's a problem Lexington, once a predominantly white, sports-crazed, Cornhuskers-loving community, faces with each passing sports season. Every girls' team has a no-cut policy in the hopes of encouraging a few wavering newcomers. Every coach faces nontraditional dilemmas. How do you cut a kid for missing practice when she has to travel 3½ hours to Omaha to translate for her parents at the immigration office? How do you explain the importance of a 2-hour basketball workout to a family struggling through 12-hour workdays?

"It's a socioeconomic situation," said Sam Jilka, Lexington's track coach. "Some of these families, these parents, [sports] are not a priority. Because they're questioning, 'Why do you need to go to that activity?'

"It's not so much an excuse, but these kids are torn between two worlds."

The investors

Kyle Hoehner is a tall man with a salt-and-pepper beard who looks as if he could still hold his own on the basketball court, at least in a game of H-O-R-S-E. He grew up in Bertrand, Neb., touched his first basketball by the age of 2, and never wandered far. He got his degrees from then-Kearney State College, about 40 miles away. He coached boys' basketball in that town for 21 years and became one of the most recognizable faces on the wooden-bleacher tour through central and eastern Nebraska.

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Elizabeth Merrill Kyle Hoehner is the activities director and assistant principal at Lexington (Neb.) High, and knew going in to the job that he faced some challenges.

Two years ago, as a favor to Lexington's principal, he crossed counties to interview for the school's athletic director job. Hoehner knew about the scenarios, that he'd be taking a job in a smaller town with much bigger challenges. He agonized over the decision for more than a month.

"I remember the first time I came here," Hoehner said. "I'm from Kearney, where there are 1,400 kids and 1,375 look just like I do. The first day we had our orientation and I'm sitting here thinking, 'Where am I?' It was a shock to me.

"It's an unbelievable place. I say this to a lot of people -- it's the best-kept secret in Nebraska. We have great people working here. It takes a certain type of person to coach in this situation and do well. Because it's hard."

At Lexington, the coaches deal with mobility. They may fall in love with an athlete, only to lose that player a semester later, when the family picks up and leaves for another job and faraway dream. Some families, when they came to Nebraska, weren't prepared for the harsh winters. So they moved. Some take their children back to Mexico for Christmas break, and don't return for weeks.

The coaches deal with family constraints. Many girls, Hoehner says, can't commit to daily practices because their cash-strapped parents are working when school gets out and need a baby sitter for the younger children. One of Lexington's biggest success stories is depicted in a giant frame in Hoehner's office. It's of a former cross-country star who was headed for the Tyson plant after graduation. Her family wanted her to quit running, to stay at home and help. After an emotional tug-of-war, she accepted a scholarship at a community college in another state. She's now studying to be a nurse and has been an inspiration to other Hispanic athletes, Hoehner and Jilka say.

"They see it as … They're going against their family," Jilka said. "It's a very difficult decision. You have to help them to understand that you are making an investment, and your education is an investment. Of course, that is seeing it through all-white, Anglo, middle-class eyes and so you have to be careful placing that on them.

"But you also have to make them aware that here's an option, and now you make a decision. Which way would you like to go with this? How will it impact your family and how will it impact your life?"

The coaches deal with apathy. For years, they struggled with promoting school spirit in a population base that couldn't relate to the community or its sports. Hoehner started an autograph night to let the town's younger population meet the basketball, football and volleyball teams. Slowly, he has seen more Hispanic faces in the crowds. And someday, Hoehner hopes, a few of them will be interested enough to play.

"I've been trying to do a better job at listening," Hoehner said. "What I've learned to do better is be a little more lenient. Be solid, be strict, but be understanding."

Tension, at first

A hallway of old photos tells the story of Lexington's athletic history. This is a town that once churned out big, sturdy, homegrown talent for the University of Nebraska football team. Mick Tingelhoff, a Pro Bowl center who started in four Super Bowls for the Vikings, was born and raised in Lexington. Monte Kiffin, a football defensive guru, was born here a few months earlier.

The older locals say the Sperry-New Holland combine factory brought in upscale management types from Pennsylvania in the 1970s, well-to-do white people who were heavily involved in Lexington High athletics. Then the factory closed down in 1986, and a beef-packing plant moved in two years later. And Lexington's demographics dramatically shifted.

In 1990, the town's population was 95 percent white. Ten years later, Hispanics and Latinos made up 51 percent of the population.

"At first, there was a lot of tension," said Donna Stewart, Lexington's girls' tennis coach. "People were like, 'Oh, I'm going to leave this school because I don't want to be around all the minority kids.'

"It was tough. There were a lot of kids who wanted to play with their own groups and do their own thing. Now … They don't even notice a difference. They're just used to seeing all cultures. Kids are always the first ones to be OK with things. It's the grownups that are usually the ones that are like, 'Wow, this is hard.'"

Lexington has dual-language courses in grade school, and the language barrier is no longer much of an issue with students. Parents are sometimes another story. Stewart and Lexington's other coaches still battle with making sports socially acceptable with young Hispanics. But they say the bigger battle lies with educating their parents.

"Most of the people are coming over here as first generation," said Renee Otero, a guard on the basketball team. "They're just trying to get their kids to go to school. I think in the future when they have been here awhile and kind of know the system, they'll give their kids that opportunity that they didn't have."

Soccer leads

School is out at Lexington, and Latin music thumps over a pair of car speakers. It's the same music that plays at school dances now, along with rap and hip-hop. The white kids dance to it, especially the slow songs. "Even if it's goofy," Anely Laguna says. "They just get involved and dance."

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Elizabeth MerrillLexington senior Anely Laguna has accepted a scholarship to play soccer in college.

Laguna is running on the soccer field on a windy afternoon, even though practice doesn't officially start until Monday. She knows she's one of the lucky ones. She's been in Lexington since fifth grade, tried a handful of sports, and her parents encourage her to play. Well, sort of. Her dad is big on soccer; her mom wishes she'd stick to more "girly" hobbies. On weekends, Laguna waitresses at the A&D, a typical small-town diner where the patrons are not carb-conscious and order pancakes and eggs and talk about football in March. Hoehner is a regular there, and teases Laguna that the food is the tops but the service leaves something to be desired.

Soccer has made huge strides in Lexington -- the boys' team qualified for state last year, and the girls are inching closer. Nearly half of the girls' roster is Hispanic. Hoehner knows that cultural familiarity has a lot to do with that, but he's encouraged by the fact that some of the girls have dabbled in other sports. Nicole Mota played volleyball and basketball before tearing her ACL. She'll sit out this soccer season. But she's sort of an ambassador to other sports. Her Hispanic friends will ask her what time the basketball team plays and if the offseason conditioning for volleyball is too hard.

Mota and Laguna welcome the company. They've gone to different rural towns and felt the stares. There, they know they're a minority.

"They get a negative view of us," Laguna said. "Once they meet us, they know we're not bad."

Laguna walks back to campus, and tells Hoehner some news: She's just accepted a soccer scholarship at Concordia, an NAIA school in Seward, Neb. "It's a great college," he tells her. In most towns, it's not huge news. In Lexington, it's another small victory.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.