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Omaha Magazine

The Bad News Bunnies: Benson Revives More Than Baseball

Aug 29, 2022 04:20PM ● By Dwain Hebda
Thom Sibbitt and  Django Greenblatt-Seay in benson high dugout

Photo by Sarah Lemke

It doesn’t take much to hear the emotion rise in Thom Sibbitt’s voice when speaking about the 2022 Benson baseball team, the words sticking like burrs in his throat. 

“Most teams say ‘One, two, three, Titans,’ or ‘One, two, three, win,’” Sibbitt said. “In every sport at Benson it’s ‘One, two, three, family.’ That is the way it is done at Benson. It’s a culture of solidarity and the desire to fight, to compete. It is a shared desire. It’s kind of beautiful, you know?”

“Family” is an apt term to describe the Benson Mighty Bunnies and its rag-tag group of recruits who, this year, revived the school’s baseball program after a seven-year absence—three years co-opting with North High’s program and four with no representation at all. The squad, as long on enthusiasm as they were short on formal baseball experience, took its lumps on the field while demonstrating camaraderie and school spirit.

Everywhere one looks on the baseball team—as with much of the Benson student body—one sees underdogs, dreamers, and long-shots. Sibbitt said Benson’s students lead or are near the top of Omaha Public Schools in several demographic categories, including percentage of refugees, students receiving free and reduced lunches (96%), and most languages spoken (11). At 1,500 students it’s also the smallest of OPS high schools, on the cusp between Class A and Class B athletic classification. 

“Our baseball team easily is the most diverse team I’ve ever seen in the state,” Sibbitt said. “We have Karen [Myanmar] kids, we have African immigrant students. Of course, your traditional Omaha demographics—Latino, African American. What we all share is we’re a very low-income to working-class school.”

The idea to revive the baseball program came from Dan Kenny, former University of Nebraska at Omaha baseball player who previously coached at North High and is now a physical education teacher at Benson, who earned the blessing of Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Melinda Bailey. Kenny recruited Sibbitt, Benson’s industrial technology teacher, as assistant coach, between their two classes, they started stumping for players from which they got 28 takers, enough for varsity and junior varsity squads.

A problem, however, almost immediately presented itself—the school’s baseball equipment was unusable, and most players didn’t come from households with extra cash for gloves, cleats, or bats. Sibbitt, a member of two local fast-pitch baseball teams for adults, sent out a call for donations over social media that reached one of his teammates.

“One day Thom posted a photo of a few old baseball gloves on Instagram and implored anybody who followed him to help contribute to these kids at Benson,” said Django Greenblatt-Seay, creative manager for City+Ventures. “I know a lot of good people who would be excited to support that type of cause if they just knew about it.”

Greenblatt-Seay shared the post and put his money where his mouth was, making a donation to Sibbitt’s Venmo account. Almost immediately people followed suit, quickly raising about $4,000. Word also reached the Seline Family Foundation, which donated an additional $7,500. 

Sibbitt, who was prepared to make do with $1,500 if he could get it, could now equip the entire team with two sets of jerseys, bats, gloves, hats, and cleats—plus snacks and meals for travel days. 

“For Coach Kinney, Ms. Bailey and I, it was emotional,” Sibbitt said. “We knew we were going to be able to let these guys step onto the field with a sense of pride.”

It would be nice to say the gear was the catalyst to a Cinderella run to the state playoffs, but such was not the case. Only a few of the Bunnies had ever played organized baseball. Unlike their competition, many of whom had taken private lessons, Benson’s baseball lessons were very public. As was their character.

“I went to one game and watched Benson lose to Auburn 45-1, I think,” Greenblatt-Seay said. “But it was amazing how those kids were still finding joy in the positive things that happened. [Auburn] had 20 runs in an inning, it was still, ‘All right, just one more! Just throw a strike!’ Fifteen errors into the game and they’re still saying, ‘The team’s got your back!’”

The team went winless but steadily improved through the school season, so much so that after Sibbitt wrangled additional sponsors to get the squad into summer league play, they promptly won their first two games. Benson baseball has a ways to go, but it’s moving in the right direction. The squad’s lone senior, Eh Tha Ku, wrote to thank donors, telling them the experience was everything.

“Even when we lose a game…to us, it improves and makes understanding the game a little easier,” he wrote. “I love every moment I spend with the team.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Sarah Lemke
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