Game Changer

Sports is an invaluable way to give kids opportunities to develop new skills, learn about teamwork, gain confidence, make friends, and have fun. It’s why so many families participate and have grown it into a multibillion-dollar industry nationwide. Omaha has experienced its own boom with youth sports, and the Elkhorn Athletic Association (EAA) is making huge strides to provide opportunities for kids of all levels across multiple sports and build state-of-the-art facilities for the entire region to enjoy.

The EAA has roots in the community that date back to 1972—the beginning of Elkhorn Soccer Club—which merged with the EAA in 2019. Elkhorn Baseball Association began in 1975, followed by the Elkhorn Girls Softball Association in 1995. Co-founders Eric Crouch and Jason McDonald, whom are both still on the Board of Directors, formed the EAA in 2015. “When we created the EAA, our pillars of commitment were to give the Elkhorn community a program for one family to play multiple sports, remain a viable non-profit, be feeder programs for the local high schools, and most importantly, turn these kids into tomorrow’s leaders,” said Jason McDonald, Chair of the Board of Directors.

Today, eight sports comprise the non-profit organization: baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, football, wrestling, track and field, and cheer. McDonald said the organization “has remained true to these values that we started with due to our committed staff, fantastic volunteers and coaches and most importantly, the families that call EAA home.” What sets EAA apart, in addition to multi-sport opportunities, is the comprehensive development, which includes athletic capabilities, leadership, and community focus. The club is driven to set a high standard and change the youth sports model, including being the state’s largest club for girls fast pitch softball and being considered a trendsetter by having club soccer as part of the multi-sport offering.

Multi-sport families are common, and the EAA wants to make it easier for its members to participate in multiple sports by streamlining online registrations and communicating opportunities with all members. Nine-year-old Knox Onatolu plays three sports through the EAA: football, soccer, and track and field, and his mom, Jessie Onatolu, said they’ve had a very positive experience with the organization. “We really enjoy watching our kids interact with their coaches and teammates. Being multi-sport athletes, it’s exciting to see their growth and development in each of their respective sports. We take joy in seeing how excited they are to start each season.”

Offering eight sports isn’t the only way the EAA is setting itself apart. The organization currently has over 5,000 registered members and is growing, as are clubs around the area. There is a desperate need for additional sports fields throughout the Greater Omaha area, especially one that can house large tournaments. In 2018, after years of research and planning, the EAA launched a capital project to build an outdoor sports complex not only to serve its own members, but to provide opportunities for youth throughout the community and across the region to have state-of-the-art facilities that would also attract regional tournaments that are typically played at facilities in surrounding cities such as Kansas City and Des Moines. In fact, according to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, a single three-day tournament in sports such as baseball, softball, or soccer, can bring an estimated $2.2 million in revenue to the community. After two years of setbacks with the capital project—the flooding of 2019 and Covid in 2020—the EAA resumed its project in November 2020, formally launching its Inspire a Generation, Give Like a Champion capital campaign.

As part of its mission “to provide safe, enjoyable, positive learning environments for players of all ages and abilities,” the EAA secured 142 acres of land in Western Douglas County. The vision: to raise $43 million over the next 5-7 years to build a state-of-the-art sports complex, which will be called the MD West ONE Sports Complex, that will include 8 artificial turf baseball/softball fields, 4 artificial turf soccer fields, a barrier-free field for adaptive athletes, as well as concession, restrooms, and parking for up to 1,500 vehicles. An indoor fieldhouse could also be part of future phases. Phase 1 of the project, which is estimated at $23 million, is expected to begin in 2022. Currently, approximately $4 million in gifts and pledges has been raised.

“Western Douglas County is one of the state’s fastest-growing communities, which means thousands of area children are vying for limited athletic facility space—whether it’s fields for organized competition or practices,” said Bruce O’Neel, EAA Executive Director. “With input from the community, EAA members, and various state and local officials, we have developed a plan to build a multi-use athletic complex that addresses the needs of our residents—from adaptive sports, recreational programs, competitive teams and those seeking a casual wellness environment.”

Assistant Executive Director Rob Herringer said he’s very optimistic the organization will reach its first phase goal. “Our primary focus is to provide excellent programming for our kids, and this is right in line with that. With improved facilities and a place to call home, we will only improve the product we provide for kids. Our motto is, ‘Forward, always forward,’ so every single day we try to improve on everything we’re doing.” The other reason the EAA is so confident it will succeed in this undertaking is because the organization believes it has the right people in place at the right time. “We’re passionate about what we’re doing and committed to making this dream a reality,” he added.

There has already been tremendous support from the community, including founding partners such as MD West ONE, DJ’s Dugout, Pinnacle Bank, General Fire and Safety and Core Bank, but in order to continue to move the project forward, additional support is critical, whether that’s in the form of someone’s treasure or talent. “Our non-profit organization is simply at the tip of the spear leading the charge to bring the community together to make the MD West ONE Sports Complex a reality,” O’Neel said. To find out more or to make a donation, visit elkhornathletics.org/mdwestonecomplex.

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