A St. Joan of Arc Junior League team earmed a baseball championship in 1966. CATHOLIC VOICE ARCHIVES

Equipping Disciples

Decades of athletes formed in the faith and fun of Catholic leagues

Hundreds, even thousands, of fans packed into ballpark bleachers and spilled onto park grounds to watch their favorite teams and players. Athletes competed in parish and school rivalries. Catholic-centered fun, socializing and formation.

At its height, the Catholic Youth Organization was part of growing up for many in Omaha and other towns in the Archdiocese of Omaha and across the country.

The tradition-rich CYO is approaching 90 years in the archdiocese, its roots dating to three baseball games in June 1935.

From its beginnings in the 1930s through its heyday locally into the 1970s, grade school and high school athletes, as well as young adults, represented their parishes in a variety of sports, including boxing in its earliest years.

A June 3, 1938, article in the True Voice (the forerunner of the Catholic Voice) showed CYO’s popularity. According to the article, a week earlier 4,000 fans showed up at Fontenelle Park in Omaha to watch a Cathedral team defeat Holy Name 8-2 and Sts. Peter and Paul upend St. Francis 4-1.

Across town that same day, 2,000 fans were on hand at Riverview Park to witness St. Mary’s topple Our Lady of Lourdes 10-3, and at Miller Park, 1,000 cheered on as St. Bridget edged Sacred Heart 3-2 in 10 innings.

Like so many Omaha-area families, the Cap family’s participation in CYO athletics has been a source of family pride passed down from generation to generation – in their case, four times over.

In 1939, John Cap toed the pitching rubber for St. Wenceslaus senior baseball club. In 2024, sixth-grader Ethan Cap nailed 3-pointers for St. Thomas More Bengals.

In between great-grandfather and great-grandson were John Cap Jr., who played in the 1960s at St. Patrick’s, and his son Steve, Ethan’s dad, who donned the colors of St. Stan’s.

Not only did John Sr., John Jr. and Steve Cap play for their respective parishes and schools, but all three gave back to their parishes by coaching their sons in baseball and basketball.

In its glory years, CYO was synonymous with multi-sport athletes, school spirit and parish pride.


But times change and no longer are track, baseball, volleyball, softball or bowling offered by CYO. Today’s Omaha CYO is a basketball-only organization for boys and girls in grades kindergarten through eight, plus a boys-only high school league.

Nor is CYO the only Catholic-centric organization in the metro area. The Parochial Athletic League, formed about 40 years ago, provides competition for grade school students in basketball, track and field, football and volleyball. There is also a Catholic Youth Soccer League, which oversees grade school matches.

Regardless of the league they are involved with, parishes are the big winners of their school sports programs, said Dan Emsick, a longtime coach and basketball director at Our Lady of Lourdes.

“It helps the parish. It adds a community aspect to it,” he said. “I really believe that without youth sports you wouldn’t have a lot of parents know each other.”

CYO was a national Catholic youth movement for boys started by Chicago Bishop Bernard Shiel in 1931. Over the next five decades, the organization broadened its scope to include girls’ sports and parish social events such as youth dances, regional conferences and religious retreats.

Since its inception in Omaha, archdiocesan priests have played an active role in CYO activities – including getting ballplayers to games on time.

“When Father [Anthony] Wilwerding was at Sts. Peter and Paul, he used to have a Hudson car and he’d put about 10 of us in his car and drive us out to Fontenelle Park,” said Jim Kresnik, who graduated from Sts. Peter and Paul in 1953.

From its start in Omaha, CYO athletics was under the direction of an archdiocesan priest. That changed in 1963 when 22-year-old Ed Stanek was appointed CYO director, replacing Father Robert Gass.

During Stanek’s seven-year run as athletic director, CYO added softball and volleyball for girls, and track for boys and girls.

In a Sept. 18, 1970, article in The True Voice, Stanek is quoted at a local CYO conference about why CYO activities – athletic and non-athletic – were important for the Catholic youth in the Omaha area.

“It is to keep young people close to their parish and priests by centering their interest in the parish and developing an interest and loyal, cooperative spirit,” he said.

As the local sports landscape changed with the introduction of select programs, so did the CYO.

St. Thomas More coaches talk to their team during a timeout at the sixth-grade CYO basketball championship game at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue. COURTESY PHOTO

CYO baseball went away in the 1980s, absorbed by the now-defunct South Omaha Saints League. Though the sport was the hallmark of CYO from the 1930s into the 1980s, no longer are there baseball or girls’ softball programs specific to Catholic grade schools.

Frank Bencker is in his third decade as Omaha’s CYO director. He said one of the biggest changes adopted by the organization is ending the requirement that its participants be Catholic.

“It used to be you had to be Catholic to play CYO in a time when student population was 99% Catholic,” said Bencker, who coached at the former St. Richard Parish. Even now, with more non-Catholics involved, expectations remain to coach and play with a Christian attitude.

“Anybody that calls me up and says, ‘Frank, can we put a team in?’ I tell them we are a Catholic, Christian organization and there’s expectations we have and either you follow them or you don’t,” he said. “If you don’t, then maybe we’re not a good match.”

According to the CYO website, 21 Catholic grade schools, nearly all east of 72nd Street, plus another 16 non-Catholic churches or sports programs, were represented by about 220 teams – approximately 1,800 players – in the basketball season. A non-affiliated high school league that started five years ago grew to 24 teams this year.

The numbers are even greater in PAL basketball, said its director, John Martinez, who just completed his 13th year in that role.

Just under 300 teams – somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,400 students – in third through eighth grade from 22 Catholic and four non-Catholic grade schools took to the basketball court this season.

The schools that makeup PAL are mostly west of 72nd Street or in an Omaha suburb. Just under a dozen schools participate in both PAL and CYO.

Martinez grew up playing CYO sports for Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Omaha. As a longtime member of Holy Ghost Parish, also in Omaha and where he still belongs, he’s served as a coach and athletic director.

He said the Catholic leagues should always have a place in the Omaha sports scene.

“I hope it never goes away. I hope it just continues long after we check out,” Martinez said of the Catholic-based leagues. “I hope it continues because it’s just a great thing.”

All eyes are on Brooklynn Ciaccio of St. Bernadette Parish in Bellevue during a PAL volleyball game. COURTESY PHOTO

Though baseball and softball are out of the picture for PAL and CYO, the popularity of volleyball is reflected in the number of girls participating in PAL volleyball.

With the folding of the Girls Sports Association in the 2010s, PAL is the lone Catholic-centered organization for girls’ volleyball. Mary Beth Wilwerding, who served as the GSA director, is PAL’s co-director of the sport with Angie Gallagher.

Competing in the fall, about 1,200 teams – roughly 2,100 girls in grades three through eight – participate in divisions ranging from introductory and recreational to club-level caliber.

The common denominator across PAL-sponsored sports is a commitment to provide an atmosphere for students to grow socially and athletically.

“We emphasize the Christian attitude of sportsmanship, honesty, teamwork, team spirit, respect and responsibility,” Wilwerding said. “We talk about the importance of good sportsmanship and Christian attitude.”

Whatever level girls are on, Wilwerding said, there’s something special in wearing one’s school colors.

“It’s playing with your classmates and other people you go to school with,” Wilwerding said. “It’s building those relationships, having a good time and enjoying each other’s company.”

A baseball team from Sts. Peter and Paul were champions in 1968. Included among the boys in the photo is the writer of this article, Ron Petak, front row, left.

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