Saturday, December 19, 2015
Photo credit, above: Doug Koster
Editor's note: Paul Beranek, 55, died Tuesday, Dec. 22 after a battle with cancer. Read the obituary here.
KEARNEY, Neb. — The scoreboard clock is ticking. The kids can’t see it, but they know their time is coming.
They sit in a math classroom that doubles as a locker room. They listen to their new head coach preach trust and belief, keys to an upset.
Down the hallway, in a classic basketball barn with a curved wooden roof, a near-capacity crowd awaits opening night of the high school season, a date with the defending Class A champions, the dawn of the Drake Beranek era.
The Kearney players feel their legs bouncing in the desks, their arm hair standing beneath shooting shirts that say #BStrong. Trust and belief.
They hear a knock on the classroom door. A wheelchair rolls in, occupied by a man who hasn’t missed an opening night in three decades. A skinny tube connects his right arm to a black bag. He pulls off his gloves and stocking cap, revealing his bald head. He picks up the pep talk from his 27-year-old son.
“Nothing better than somebody telling you you can’t do it.” He smiles. “Nothing better.”
Paul Beranek circled this night on his calendar weeks ago. Dec. 3. Drake’s season opener at 6:45 p.m., followed by a 7:30 tip at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where his third son is reigning conference player of the year. Paul wants to see both games. An hour ago, after another week of pills and pokes and beeping machines, he checked out of the hospital. Basketball, he says, is his best medicine.
In big games, he tells the kids, it’s OK to get jacked up. But always think “next play.” You screw up? Find a positive, something simple like a chest pass.
“Next play, next play. We don’t have time to dwell. We’re too dang good.”
His voice is weak, his face is thin, his skin is pale. If these Kearney kids knew him a year ago, they wouldn’t recognize him now. But he knows what to say.
He’s delivered 1,000 pep talks, pushing every button possible. He’s kicked lockers and busted chairs and sarcastically told his players, “Let’s just forfeit.” Once, before his fourth state championship game, he grabbed a marker and drew two baskets, one with an arrow going into the hoop, one with an arrow going out.
“More of these. And less of these. Let’s go get ‘em!” He won.
“Like I said, there’s nothing better than someone saying you can’t.”
At Drake’s age, he was an assistant at Ravenna High School. At 40, he was still a struggling head coach, residing in the doldrums of Class C-2. Then the crazy art teacher known as “Coach B” turned Ravenna into Nebraska’s version of the Hickory Huskers.
“Like I said, there’s nothing better than someone saying you can’t.”
Coach B points to their head coach, leaning against the classroom wall. Drake heard it all when he left UNK after his junior season to try to play for Nebraska. Too slow. Too goofy. He earned a scholarship.
“You should’ve seen him when we played. He played and I coached. You don’t think there were some wars? It was knock-down drag-out. ... He’d go, ‘You’re an idiot, Dad.’”
Over the next two hours, the Kearney boys will enter the gym with the lights off and the students screaming. They’ll dive on the floor and bury 3s. They’ll grab a big lead over Creighton Prep and try to hold on.
Over the next two weeks, Coach B will vomit so much that his youngest son will call mom in a panic. He’ll endure another stomach surgery and another round of chemo. He’ll see old players — now grown men — leave his room with tears in their eyes. He’ll scroll through his phone and see #BStrong tributes from rivals he used to beat by 50. His voice will leave him entirely. He will pray.
“Let’s get ready to go,” he tells the kids. “I don’t have anything else.”
“That’s it?” Drake says. “You don’t got any more oxygen in you or what?”
“Oh, I’m jacked.”
One more thing, Drake says, grabbing the wheelchair handles. “Trust your abilities. Guys, we’re a good team. We’re good players.”
“Trust your abilities,” Coach B says. “I like that.”
At left, Paul Beranek gets a bear hug from Ravenna's Brett Douglas after a 57-51 win in the 2010 Class C-2 final. At top right, a Kearney player greets the coach during pregame introductions. At bottom right, Beranek tries to get his players' attention during a 2006 battle with Bellevue West. Credit: The World-Herald
Coach B attended a team camp several years ago at the Devaney Center in Lincoln. During a session break, he delivered an informal presentation about building a program.
There’s several different ways, he said. You can A) recruit players; B) coach kids from the time they’re in elementary school or C) find the prettiest, most athletic girl in the area, marry her and have a bunch of boys.
“I can’t recruit ‘em, so I did B and C.”
He grew up in Lincoln, graduated from Milford, tried college at Midland and ended up building trailers for Cornhusker 800. One day a co-worker put a screw through his shoe.
I’m not doing this the rest of my life, he said. Over lunch, he jumped on his motorcycle and drove down to the University of Nebraska. They asked him what he wanted to do. Well, he said, I can draw.
In 1983, he showed up late for a job interview at Ravenna. Car trouble. He planned to be there one year. He never left. He married Brenda Teichmeier, the prettiest athlete in town. He bought an old two-story and fixed it up. He played softball all over the Midwest.
“We always joked that Paul couldn’t walk through a room without stopping to talk,” said long-time assistant Tony Shirmer. “How many steps will he take?”
In the art room, he connected with kids who didn’t always like math or history. Every May, he devoted weeknights to watercolor portraits of seniors. Those were his graduation gifts.
But nothing stirred his stomach like basketball.
One Saturday in the 1980s, Ravenna head coach Jim Langin drove the freshmen to St. Paul. Coach B took the JV team to a tournament in Pleasanton. Monday morning, Langin gets a phone call from Pleasanton.
“Hey, we didn’t appreciate the way you guys acted over here.”
“What happened?” Langin said.
“Well, after you guys beat us, your coach went up and dunked the ball in celebration.”
In 1990, after a decade of success, Langin stepped down so Coach B could run the show. It didn’t go well. Ravenna went 1-16 in ’93 and Langin and the superintendent had to twist a few arms to save Coach B’s job.
“It wasn’t anything he did wrong,” Langin said. “They just weren’t winning any games.”
The light at the end of the tunnel? A rail-thin, sandy-haired, fireball of a teenager named Drake.
* * *
It’s the first quarter, Kearney is on a 13-0 run, the place is going nuts and it’ll be a miracle if Drake Beranek keeps his voice.
“He’s gonna be dying by the end,” his mom says.
Thirty feet to his left, Coach B sits in a padded wheelchair conserving his energy. He doesn’t say a word the entire quarter, craning his neck around the water cooler to see. But when a Bearcat grabs a board and draws an over-the-back foul, Coach B lifts his right arm — the one connected to the skinny tube — and grabs it with his left hand. He smiles.
“I can’t yell strong rebound.”
He sees Kearney's No. 3 in front of him, the same player who stopped by the hospital today after school. Coach B finally extends his voice. "Keep it going, Zach."
These kids reminds him of Ravenna. "Most our guys could weld for FFA like a son-of-a-gun."
At halftime, Kearney leads 34-25. Brenda takes off for UNK to see Connor’s game. Coach B sticks around. Drake’s hair is damp with sweat as he wheels his dad back from the locker room.
“What an environment.”
He turns the corner, parks his dad by the water cooler and spots Coach B’s doctor.
“You take care of him?”
* * *
Kearney High coach Drake Beranek cheers on his team during a matchup with Creighton Prep. Credit: Doug Koster
The seed of a basketball dynasty emerged from the hardwood floors of an old two-story at 918 Milan Ave.
After Friday night varsity games — usually losses — Drake’s grade-school buddies showed up to play in the living room, keeping Coach B awake. Move the couches. Raise the Little Tikes backboard. Hang a Nerf hoop on the threshold. Just watch out for the .... no!
Another broken glass pane in the French doors.
Coach B saved the boys from his wife’s wrath and got ‘em outside. First at the Grand Island YMCA. Eventually to camps and tournaments all over Nebraska. They saved money by camping. One night, coming home from Norfolk, kids were whipping a volleyball around the van when it smacked Coach B’s head.
“I’ve never seen a van go from 60 to 0 so fast in my entire life,” James Habe said.
What Coach B lacked in organization in the gym — art teachers don’t produce minute-by-minute practice plans — he made up in fury.
Throwing chairs at practice. Whipping his sport coat into the bleachers (or a trash can at Grand Island Central Catholic).
Fans “saw this crazy old bald guy screaming,” former player Wayne Bock said. What they didn’t see was “the guy who will give you a hug and tell you how much he loves you. It takes a lot for a man to do that.”
Drake’s class was his perfect canvas. Coach B started pushing the ball. Perfecting his motion offense. Shooting 3s. He learned Dana Altman’s 1-2-1-1 press.
Drake’s class went 21-5 as sophomores and 27-0 as juniors, including a 38-point victory in the C-2 state championship game. What’s next?
How ‘bout a date with the two-time defending state champs ... in Class A.
* * *
Back at Kearney High, Drake’s tie is loose, but his team is hanging tough.
He paces the sideline, wincing when Creighton Prep attempts an open 3, rubbing his hands through his hair, running down the bench to grab a sub.
“Move it! Move it! Good.”
Coach B keeps a close watch, but he’s also checking messages from UNK, where Connor’s team is off to a slow start. The back of his cell phone has three photos — Drake, Riley and Connor — all from state championship games. He’s putting gold medals around their necks.
At a timeout with 5:54 left, Coach B asks for someone to hold his wheelchair steady. He fumbles with the footrests, leans forward and trusts his arms to push. He stands.
“My butt hurts.”
With two minutes left, Kearney’s lead starts dropping. From nine to three. Finally, leading 67-64 with 9.5 seconds left, the Bearcats break pressure and draw a foul. Drake sighs. It’s over.
Students rush the floor. Kearney players run to Coach B and give him the game ball. The speakers blast, “Jump around! Jump around!” Coach B bobs his head.
Back in the classroom, Drake’s voice isn’t just hoarse, it’s cracking. “You can’t be satisfied. We are just getting started.”
He yields the floor to “the real Coach B,” who’s still holding the game ball in his wheelchair. He talks about late-game situations. He praises their energy and teamwork. Tells ‘em to stay out of trouble.
“I’m gonna leave ya with one thing. Way to be strong.”
Video: Paul Beranek after Kearney's upset win over Creighton Prep
Dan Cyboron thought his old friend had gone mad.
You scheduled a game WHERE? The top program in the state? Don’t you know Bellevue West’s enrollment exceeds Ravenna’s population?!?
Yep. Coach B invited the whole team over for dinner and put in “Hoosiers.” Three nights later, Jan. 28, 2006, Ravenna put its 41-game winning streak on the line.
“For our team, it was bigger than the state championship.” Drake said.
Tip-off was 7:30 p.m. By 4, Bellevue West’s 3,200 seats were nearly full. The crowd included hundreds from central and western Nebraska, many of whom called Ravenna a rival. Not this night. At 4:15, the Ravenna boys arrived and turned the corner into the gym. The first roar.
“Every little hair on your body was standing on end,” James Habe said.
Coach B’s players waited three hours for tip-off, giving him time to work.
“It’s almost impossible to explain, but he had a way of instilling confidence by twisting your mind,” said Adam Mingus, a freshman in ’06.
Said Justin Kulwicki, his 6-foot-3, 160-pound post player: “He made us believe we were the best team in the state.”
The first quarter was Coach B’s Mona Lisa. 3-pointers. Back-door layups. Just the “organized chaos” he envisioned. Early in the second, the Bluejays led 31-13.
Bellevue West sliced the lead little by little. Ravenna’s six-man rotation wore down. Drake cramped up. Down 63-61 with one final chance, Ravenna turned it over on a backdoor cut. It was over.
“I’ve never been in a game where 10 kids played that hard for that long,” Bellevue West coach Doug Woodard said afterward.
We don’t have great athletes, Coach B said. “What we have is the greatest competitors of all time.”
He would win three more C-2 state championships — Riley and Connor teamed up in 2009 and ’10. He would establish a motion offense and man-to-man defense — The Ravenna Way — that connected seniors to second-graders. But that 2006 night was his signature moment. Ten years later, strangers still bring it up.
“You’re from Ravenna? Did you play at Bellevue West?”
If his town didn’t understand it then, they do now: You don’t always have to win to make your mark.
* * *
Time is working against him. It’s 8:50 p.m. when Coach B’s new daughter-in-law stops the Suburban at the back door of UNK’s arena. As he climbs out, the radio guy describes a Connor Beranek bucket, “What an athletic play from the MIAA player of the year.”
Coach B rolls into the handicapped section with 9:35 left. UNK trails Emporia State by nine. Brenda comes up from her courtside seat with a big smile. Are you tired?
“I will be when I get home.”
During a timeout, the speakers play “Shout,” but the arena is 90 percent empty. Drake walks in with his shirt untucked. He has 35 new text messages after his big win, but he’s grumbling about Connor missing a free throw.
Then Connor turns it over and doesn’t run back. At the next timeout, he smacks the floor. He gets benched. The Lopers lose.
UNK forward Connor Beranek scores a bucket during a 2015 game against Northeastern State. Credit: Matt Dixon/World-Herald News Service
He shared the secret a year ago at Christmas time. His sons couldn’t believe it. You’re really gonna retire?
After 32 years on Ravenna’s bench, Coach B was excited about being a spectator. Imagine a winter where he could get out of school at 4 p.m. and go anywhere he wanted. Follow Connor on the road. Assist Drake at practices. Even watch Ravenna.
In July, two weeks before Drake’s wedding, he felt sick and he went to the doctor. The phone call came on the 21st, just as Coach B and Brenda were going to taste food for the reception. He didn’t tell anybody till the next day.
He had beaten gall bladder cancer in the fall of 2006 — “Iron sharpens iron,” he said then. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Doctors were optimistic the 55-year-old could win again.
The following week, Coach B was teaching his youngest son how to mud walls in Connor’s Kearney house. Got a big day tomorrow, he said. Be ready to work. The next morning, Connor was ready. Coach B couldn’t get out of bed.
On Aug. 1, his sons drove to Gothenburg and put on their tuxedos. Coach B was 250 miles away in an Omaha hospital bed. He watched the wedding on Facetime.
Brenda talked to him after the ceremony. We’ll Facetime the first dance, she said. Instead, Coach B was rolled into surgery.
He spent 26 days at the med center with a leg infection. Back in Ravenna, the town committed a whole day to raising funds. Their new motto — #BStrong — was born.
In September, Coach B started 33 days of chemo and radiation. But November CAT scans brought bad news: the chemo didn’t work.
Where is the cancer now?
“I don’t really know,” Brenda said. “And I’m not really gonna ask. That’s terrible, isn’t it.”
* * *
He rolls out the door after UNK’s loss, Drake trailing him without a coat. They’re debating strategy. What Kearney High should’ve done when Creighton Prep’s star was getting layups in the final minutes.
Coach B climbs in the SUV and grabs two paper cups. Oh boy, Drake says. This is what Dad does at restaurants. He’ll grab every salt shaker and ketchup bottle to diagram a play.
You should’ve pushed him to his right hand, Coach B says. Put a defender in the lane and wait for him. Take a charge. “You only gotta do it one time and he’s out of the game.”
“Dad, we’re not giving up a 3 in that situation.”
“Well,” Coach B says, conceding defeat, “that’s a good idea.”
“What we were supposed to do — and what we’ll do next time — is just pinch him so he can’t get it.”
“All right,” Coach B says, pulling the door shut. “I gotta get the heat on.”
“See ya, Dad.”
The next morning, Connor couldn’t get over it.
He had been in a funk all season. The first home game, he looked at the courtside seats he’d bought for his parents. Was that really his dad?
“It looks like if he’d just get touched, he would just break in half.”
That Monday, Brenda had told her youngest son the truth: The cancer is not curable.
I’m 21. I’m a senior. This should be the best year of my life. Why this is happening?
In the final minutes against Emporia, Connor looked up from the bench and saw Drake, Mom and Dad in the handicapped section.
“I just didn’t want to show my face.”
The next night, Connor finished practice and drove to Ravenna. Mom was headed to Lincoln to watch Riley’s play — the middle son is an actor.
Dad and Connor watched Nets-Knicks. They talked about the Kearney High win — and the UNK loss. Focus on what you can control, Dad said.
Connor helped him upstairs to bed. He could tell something wasn’t right. Are you OK? Dad was looking around the bed. What do you need? Still looking. Please, just tell me.
Finally, dad pointed at a puke bucket. Connor handed it to him, then hurried out of the bedroom and called mom. Don’t worry about it, she said. It’ll be OK. She’d be home by 12:30 a.m. Connor went to the bedroom. Do you wanna go to the hospital? No no, Dad said. He just needed to get that out of system.
Connor returned an hour later and Dad was vomiting again. And again. Connor grabbed his phone. Almost home, mom said. Connor packed up his stuff, headed out the door and called Drake.
“I’ve never seen him like that,” Connor told his brother. On Highway 10 after midnight, he made a promise. No more “Why Me?” No more attitude. No more missed opportunities to hug Dad after a game.
“I’ll remember the Emporia State game for the rest of my life.”
Connor walked into his remodeled house in Kearney, the one they hired a carpenter to finish. He crashed and fell asleep, unaware that back in Ravenna at 5 a.m., Brenda was helping her husband down the stairs and into the Suburban.
The next night, the last home game before Christmas, Connor scored 23 points and UNK beat Washburn.
Coach B listened from his hospital bed.
Connor Beranek, left, holds up the net in 2012 following a perfect season his senior year. At middle, Drake poses for a photo prior to his senior season at Nebraska. At right, Riley walks off the court after Ravenna won a C-2 state title in 2010. Credit: The World-Herald
Drake enters the revolving doors, curls around a hallway to the elevator and punches 2. He says hi to a nurse and walks to 3206.
In one hand, he holds an Amigos bag. In the other, a mango smoothie from Caribou Coffee. He places it on Dad’s bed tray.
“Had to wait on the lady to come back from the bathroom,” he says, reciting a favorite joke. “Hopefully she washed her hands, Dad.”
Drake spots a blown-up photo of Ravenna's bench at the 1987 state tournament. Jim Langin, the old Ravenna coach, brought it in today. Drake spots his dad’s long blond hair. "Looks like me with a mullet."
Mom sits in a chair, listening to the radio call of a game only three blocks away, a match-up that always got Coach B’s juices flowing: Ravenna-Kearney Catholic. She spent four hours today back in Ravenna printing the most popular T-shirt in central Nebraska — #BStrong. They’re up to 1,500 sold. Almost half are being worn in the Kearney Catholic gym right now.
“What do you think about me taking a day off school and spending it with you?” Drake says. “Or do you think I’ll annoy you too much?”
“No answer,” Brenda says, smiling.
“Whatever you want to do,” Dad says softly, reaching for the smoothie.
“You can put me on a question limit."
A few days ago, Drake told his mom he was gonna bring a notebook and start working on a book about Coach B.
You can’t write a book, she said.
"People want to hear how people talk, not punctually correct and all that stuff. Nobody wants to read grammar."
He thought about it for a second.
"I'll have to do an audiobook."
Ten minutes later, he says goodbye. He wants to catch the Ravenna game. His wife picks him up, they walk into a beautiful new gym and find Connor.
Two Kearney Catholic cheerleaders hand Drake envelopes — “Our school collected money for your dad.”
His alma mater is down 30, which gives Drake time to tell a few of his Kearney players about Ravenna’s “Christmas Bowl,” the annual touch-football game Dec. 25 at 8 a.m. The quirky rules include a five-yard penalty for spitting on the field. Three years ago, they played in snow drifts. Muck boots and thick gloves. One guy even keeps stats and writes a story about it.
“Me and Connor are the first second-generation players.”
Drake’s wife rolls her eyes.
Afterward, she heads home. Drake and Connor walk to the old, dark Kearney Catholic gym, where the Ravenna boys are packing up. You know, 10 years ago this week, Drake scored 40 here.
A Ravenna eighth-grader walks by. You should see this kid, Drake says. His fingertips are so sore from shooting baskets that he puts superglue on them.
“If you’re ever in town, gimme a holler,” the kid says.
“You need to do some workouts? I got a couple things we can do.”
The Ravenna coaches walk out, humbled by another blowout. All three played with Drake at Ravenna. Soon they’re standing in a circle with Drake and Connor, trading Coach B’s signature phrases.
"You gotta enjoy getting better more than you enjoy being good.”
“Corny is cool.”
“NBA: No Babies Allowed.”
"He put so many different twists on things. He came up with a new way all the time.”
“That’s the art teacher in him.”
“Just his confidence. We’d be missing shots. He’d say, ‘Good God. A 50-year-old bald man in jeans and dress shoes could come out and make a 3. Gimme the damn ball.’ Every time, nothing but net.”
It’s almost 10 p.m. on a school night. Ravenna players are standing by the doorway waiting for their coaches.
“How ‘bout summer league where he’d just get pissed at us and leave?”
“Halfway through the third quarter, I look back at the bench. Coach B’s gone. He’s just gone. We had a kid on the bench. I go over, where’d Coach B go? He goes, ‘Ahhh, he was sick of this crap and he’s going to watch the JV.’”
They file out into a light sleet. Connor and Drake climb into a Blazer and cross the street, where big brother parked his truck.
For almost an hour, they sit in the hospital parking lot as the windshield wipers sweep away ice pellets, just talking.
They leave without going inside.
Kearney High coach Drake Beranek, right, talks to his brother Connor during a Bearcats practice.
Listen for the bouncing balls. Follow the squeaking shoes. Up the hallway, past the math classroom, hang a left. Find it yet?
An empty canvas. The bleachers are pulled back. The side hoops are hanging free. The Bearcats are 3-0, preparing for a road trip to Fremont.
Their 27-year-old head coach leads 18 players at a frenetic pace.
“If you guys don’t get shot out of a cannon and get a hand in the face, they’re gonna just stinking smoke 3s right in your face!”
One moment, he’s mocking his skinny arms; the next he’s telling a story about Coach B throwing a ball at his head; the next he’s sending a kid to the locker room for a bad attitude; the next he’s whipping the ball at the backboard — “Is this a good shot!?”
Drake runs lineups in and out so fast they have zero time to think, which is precisely the point. At its worst, practice is a turnover circus. But there are moments when it’s organized chaos, when all the paint brushes work together, when teenagers do things they never thought possible. Like this backdoor layup.
“Woo hoo hoo!” Drake yells.
A moment later, he gets so excited he almost dances. “Here’s the deal,” he tells a visitor. “They can dribble in this drill and nobody has dribbled yet. That’s the beautiful part.”
His visitor is the best basketball player in town, a 6-foot-6 UNK senior who, four days later, will score 39 in a road upset of Central Missouri. Connor’s been here before. He knows all the kids. But today he’s trying something different.
He holds four sheets of paper at mid-court, studying the diagrams. He instructs the scout team against Drake’s varsity defense. “Backscreen,” Connor says, two volume levels lower than his brother. Turnover.
Same group, he says. The ball goes into the post, then back out and around the perimeter to the left corner, a split-second ahead of the defensive rotation.
“One more pass. One more.”
His point guard catches at the top of the key and buries a 3. Connor pumps his fist. “Yeah, baby!”
Across town, light fades outside Room 3206. Here at Kearney High, little by little, the Bearcats learn The Ravenna Way. The scoreboard clock is ticking. The horn blares. Coach B’s boys keep going.
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