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Omaha Magazine

Cultivating a Pearl: Cherylle Leffall Coaches On and Off The Court

Nov 01, 2022 08:21AM ● By Chris Hatch
Coach Cherylle Leffall with members of the Nebraska Pearls

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Cherylle Leffall knows good things take time. 

Whether it’s the practice required to cash in a soft hook-shot on the Butler Gast YMCA basketball court, or making a change in the neighborhood where she grew up, Leffall recognizes that you can’t rush development.

Nor can you rush a Pearl.

“The process of cultivating a pearl takes six months to several years,” the founder and head coach of the Nebraska Pearls, an independent youth girls basketball league, said recently. “Establishing the Pearls was not an overnight process… I have been coaching several of my current athletes since they were 6 or 7… watching their skills develop over the years has been like a pearl being cultivated.”

That long-term thinking and philosophy of life as basketball—and basketball as life—guides Leffall’s team of young hoopers from their first jump shots to their latest exploits on the hardwood.

The name also has a double meaning: not only does it represent the Omaha Central High School graduate’s outlook as a coach; it pays homage to someone who helped form her own determination and purpose.

“Pearl was the name of my late great-grandmother, my ‘Big Mama,’” Leffall said. “Hearing stories about growing up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, navigating racism, raising five amazing children…the love she had for people, and the lessons she taught, the values and confidence she instilled, I had to honor her with something special to me.”

Leffall believes in the fundamentals of life and the fundamentals of the game of basketball in equal measure. It’s what she discovered on her journey from Omaha Central to Howard Junior College in Big Spring, Texas, then back to Omaha where she played at College of Saint Mary.

A natural leader, Leffall found herself looking for a way to impact the lives of others. Basketball seemed the natural fit, a passion that never ceased to inspire her. 

“I began coaching basketball for the YMCA in 2016 and never looked back,” she said. “There were a couple of established programs for girls; however, this ties back into me being a leader and doing my own thing.”

It wasn’t long before she was thinking beyond the 90 feet of hardwood she called home.
Recalling her determination to blaze her own path as a coach, Leffall decided to start her own organization, structured and operated by her experiences and values. 

“I wanted to instill things into girls early, so as they move on in their playing careers, they know what to expect…because they have already been exposed to things like conditioning, training, grade checks, and volunteering. I wanted my program to be about more than just basketball,” she said.

Born during the pandemic in 2020, Nebraska Pearls' mission is to weave community among teammates, off-court development, and on-court excellence.

“I always say we just lucked into her,” said Pearls’ assistant coach Jarad Pedersen, who signed up his own daughter, Ada, to play for Leffall when the team was still part of the YMCA.

Leffall loves giving back to her community via Nebraska Pearls, though she can’t support it alone. That’s why she applied for and received a special grant to help fund the program.

She explained how EPIC (Equal Play Inspiring Confidence) for Girls awarded the Pearls operations funding for the 2022-2023 season. “This was a major win for the program. For the first year, we operated from my own expense, my family and friends, donations from Pearls athletes’ families and friends, fundraisers, and community donations.”

“Having Ada see Cherylle and who she is has helped her so much. Seeing a strong woman demonstrate leadership, be supportive…to learn that when times are tough, you persevere,” Pedersen said. “It’s not just basketball. It’s about life, in a way. It’s helped me, too, honestly. It’s like a family, with everyone pitching in to help the young ladies become phenomenal people.”
The Pearls aren’t ready for harvest quite yet, but with Coach Leffall and their families cultivating their growth, when they’re ready, it will be a thing of beauty. 

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

Photo by Bill Sitzmann


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