Husker track recruit Lexie Oak of KC's St. Pius X HS. Photo by Rich Sugg, The Kansas City Star
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Kansas City Still a Husker Recruiting Foothold

By NU Athletic Communications

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As the curtain comes down on its first year as a proud member of the Big Ten Conference, one of Nebraska's greatest strengths is its firm recruiting foothold on Kansas City, which continues to be a secure bridgehead behind the enemy lines of the Huskers' former Big 12 home base.

Gary Pepin is Nebraska’s highly respected head track and field coach who has won more league championships than any other coach in Big 12 Conference history (23 to go with the 44 Big Eight-leading team titles his Huskers won). Even though he's a staunch believer in national and international recruiting, Pepin hasn't forgotten the strong level of regional talent flourishing in Kansas City, a mere three-hour drive from Lincoln.

Consider, for instance, the most recent Triple Crown of Kansas City track-and-field superstars headed to Lincoln this summer:

1) Lexie Oak, named on Sunday The Kansas City Star's Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year for 2012.

2) Dapo Akinmoladum, who won the 110-meter hurdles (13:56) and the 300-meter hurdles (37.34) to lead his Grandview High School team to the Missouri state high school track and field championship; and

3) James White, Dapo’s Grandview prep teammate who recently won the 2012 national junior college high jump with a leap of 7-5 while competing for Iowa Central Community College. (His all-time best is 7-5¾).

Oak All-Stater in Volleyball and Basketball, Too

Oak carried a 4.15 grade-point-average at St. Pius X in Kansas City. She was a four-time letter winner in volleyball, basketball and track and all-state in all three sports. Twice she led her volleyball team in kills. She also led her basketball team in scoring and set school records in the 100-meter dash, 400 and 800 when she wasn’t volunteering with Special Olympics. And let’s not forget a fourth 2012 Husker track-and-field recruit from the Kansas City area – distance runner Jonah Heng from Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kan. They all will join a Nebraska roster that includes Bobby Carter, who won two Missouri state prep titles at Lee’s Summit West before becoming an All-America long jumper at Nebraska.

But wait, there’s more, and you might as well realize now that this is the N-Sider’s version of an Infomercial for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are attacking the Kansas City recruiting base with an aggressive strategy and a renewed sense of purpose, based on two important developments:

1) Nebraska’s Big Ten membership carries considerably more academic clout and

2) Nebraska's $113 million in capital investments are making a difference with:

A $67.5 million East Stadium expansion that’s changing the game for football and university/athletic research in 2013;

An $18.7 million extreme makeover that gave the Nebraska men’s and women’s basketball teams and Husker wrestling programs one of the nation's best training facilities;

A $20.5 million 2013 reconfiguration of the Devaney Center that will elevate Nebraska volleyball, women’s and men’s gymnastics and wrestling into one of the nation’s finest game-day venues;

A $4.9 million Haymarket Park indoor baseball and softball practice facility that’s already proven its worth in gold; and yes,

A $2.3 million resurfacing of the Ed Weir track, so the Huskers can dig their spikes into nothing but the very best outdoor surface, just like they do when they practice at their indoor training facility, which hosted the 2012 Big Ten Track and Field Championship.

Parker, Shields 2012 Recruits from Kansas City

Make no mistake. Nebraska’s aggressive recruiting efforts stretch well beyond Kansas City, but if you want more Nebraska examples to match the popular Power & Light District in KC’s trendy new downtown area featuring the Sprint Center, please remember that 18 months from now the Nebraska men’s and women’s basketball teams will begin play in the $179 Million Pinnacle Bank Arena, located in Lincoln’s downtown West Haymarket Area.

No wonder Nebraska was able to recruit Sumner Academy’s Benny Parker, who less than two months ago was named the 60th winner of the DiRenna Award, given annually to the top boys’ basketball player in the Kansas City area. A few days later, Parker dazzled fellow Kansas/Missouri all-stars stars with his wide range of skills. The KC Star reported that despite playing less than 15 minutes because of a sprained ankle, Parker led all scorers with 20 points, making eight of his nine shots, including all four of his three-point attempts. The Star praised Parker’s “speed and strength, tenacious defending, creative finishing, range and spectacular dribbling and passing.” If you want a sample of what’s coming Nebraska’s way, check out this YouTube video of Parker in action.

Here’s the kicker. Parker isn’t the only 2012 Nebraska basketball recruit from metro Kansas City. Joining him will be Shavon Shields, a 6-foot-5 point guard from Olathe Northwest. The name might sound familiar. Shavon’s the son of Husker legend Will Shields. As nimble as Will was for an offensive lineman, even he admits that Shavon is a smoother and quicker athlete, as the YouTube video clearly shows.

Tyronn Lue is Now a Boston Celtics’ Assistant

Please forgive any and all Nebraska basketball fans if they start conjuring up visions of former Husker point guard Tyronn Lue, a Mexico, Mo., native who played his high school basketball in Raytown, a Kansas City suburb. Lue was first-team All-Big 12 and an honorable mention All-American. He once scored 36 points against Virginia and ranks in the top 10 in 13 of 19 Nebraska career categories. The best news is Lue is still productive and relevant in basketball, getting kudos for his role as an assistant coach to Boston Celtics Head Coach Doc Rivers. Nate Johnson is another Kansas City native who proved his value at Nebraska. His wife, Keisha Cannon-Johnson, and Kiera Hardy are two talented women’s basketball players who came to Nebraska from Kansas City. Cannon-Johnson played at Washington High School, and Hardy wore O’Hara High School colors.

Brandon Ubel, perhaps the steadiest starter on Nebraska’s 2011-12 basketball team, graduated from Blue Valley West, the same high school that sent his sister, Kayla Ubel, to Nebraska on a track scholarship as a middle distance runner. Last November, Kayla was one of 10 Husker graduates to receive the NCAA Division I-A Faculty Athletic Representatives' Academic Excellence Award, proving how one positive college experience can influence another.

The good thing about having deep recruiting roots in Kansas City is how that continues to pay dividends decade after decade. Many Nebraska followers consider Kori Saunders to be among the top 15 soccer players in Nebraska history. She’s the daughter of Karen and Al Saunders, the former NFL head coach, and came to Nebraska from Kansas City’s St. Teresa Academy, the same school that sent current Husker Caroline Gray to Nebraska. She’s the daughter of Katy and the late Kevin Gray, the longtime president of the Kansas City Sports Commission. One of Gray’s teammates this season was Jordan Jackson from Blue Valley West in KC suburb Overland Park.

Shawnee Mission Athletes Lead Husker Teams

Almost everywhere you look at Nebraska Athletics, Kansas City is represented. Mary Weatherholt, the 2012 Big Ten Conference Women’s Tennis Athlete of the Year and NCAA singles championship qualifier, graduated from South High School in KC suburb Shawnee Mission. Scott Willman, the No. 1 individual stroke leader (73.03) on Nebraska’s 2011-12 men’s golf team, also qualified for NCAA postseason competition. He’s from the same Shawnee Mission School District and graduated from East High School.

We’re not done. Consider these recent award-winning softball players who came to Nebraska from the Kansas City area: two-time All-Big 12 outfielder Trisha Tannahill and Ashley Guile, another All-Big 12 outfielder from the same Olathe East High School. We also should mention that Brooke Thomason, a Blue Valley Northwest graduate, just earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as an outfielder. Believe it or not, Nebraska’s most recent softball recruiting class includes another Olathe East outfielder, Kiki Stokes, who could start next season.

Nebraska swimming and diving coaches also scour the Kansas City area for talent, and the current group of Huskers includes 3-time Kansas state champion Natalie Morris from Olathe Northwest and diver Alyson Ramsey from Olathe South.

From Reed to Rose and Powers to Kinnie

Have we really gotten this far without talking about Kansas City’s importance to Nebraska football? That influence ranges from current All-Big Ten tight end candidate Kyler Reed, who graduated from Aquinas High School in Overland Park, to 2012 recruit Michael Rose, the Rockhurst High School linebacker who turned down all kinds of major offers to sign with Nebraska, so he could help recruit others. We can remember Warren Powers when he arrived at Nebraska more than 50 years ago from Lillis High in Kansas City. We also remember wide receiver Brandon Kinnie, a Grandview High School graduate, coming here via Fort Scott Community College.

That just about brings us full circle, especially when two of the first names we mentioned – Dapo Akinmoladum and James White – were also Grandview grads, leading us to the same conclusion we had when we started this column: When it comes to recruiting, Nebraska has had a foothold on Kansas City for at least half a century, still has that foothold and has no plans to take that foot off our own Rock of Gibraltar any time soon. When you know you have a pillar of strength, you keep your GPS solidly calibrated into it, proving you can change conferences, but you should never change what got you where you want to be.

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