Other stories filed under Features
Exploring the varied connections students and teachers share at Skutt Catholic.
February 2, 2015
Coach Brad and Brian
As a freshman, Skutt Catholic alumnus Brian Peska wouldn’t exactly categorize himself as the star-to-be. “I was just a very small, undersized freshman with not a ton of skill.”
Coach Brad Hildebrandt thought otherwise. “I met Brian as a young wrestler in our feeder club,” Hildebrandt said. “He had great physical talent and a confidence about him that I knew could be harnessed into a combination of championship-level wrestling.”
“Brad saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself at that time,” Peska said. “He thought I had a lot of potential and wouldn’t stop working with me until I reached it.” Their connection evolved over time, and Brian saw that Hildebrandt truly wanted what was best for him. He saw the potential Brian had and slowly, Brian began seeing it in himself. Hildebrandt helped Peska realize the type of wrestler that he could become and gave him all the tools he needed to get where he wanted to be.
There is more to coaching than simply showing up and telling the athletes what to do in order to win; a dedicated coach puts himself into his athlete’s shoes, which is exactly what Mr. Hildebrandt does. “I think our relationship really grew in the months prior to me winning my first state title my junior year,” Peska said. “I was cutting quite a bit of weight to make 106, and Brad was there every morning at 5:30 to help me get the weight off. This made me realize that I couldn’t do any of this on my own and I heavily relied on him to help me out.”
“We grew very close that year,” Hildebrandt agreed. “Spending one-on-one time together created a great amount of trust. I gained a respect for his commitment to be a state champion and his trusting in our plan we had mapped out for him as a wrestler. It was tough, but in the end it paid off big.”
Winning a state wrestling championship isn’t anything new for Skutt Catholic, but hearing each name announced never gets old for both Mr. Hildebrandt and his wrestlers. “It was almost both of our state title (2013 season),” Peska said. “We shared it because it really was a shared effort. Upon winning, I knew we were going to be close forever. He wanted me to win just as much as I did, and I realized what a great man he was after that.”
The connection between these two continued to grow over the course of Brian’s high school experience. In the wrestling room, Mr. Hildebrandt is just one of the guys. He is very personable and has his wrestlers call him by his first name, which not many coaches do. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that he was never just a coach to me or any of the other wrestlers,” Peska said. “He was a mentor. He taught us how to be good, respectable young men. He would do just about anything for any of his wrestlers and I think that is why the wrestlers and wrestling community have so much respect for him. As a wrestler, I got to see sides of him that not a lot of people get to experience.”
Hildebrandt adds, “My fundamental belief is to be a great coach, one must create relationships that are meaningful and healthy with the athletes. I tell the guys, ‘I will give you the road map, but you have to follow it.’ All kids do it differently, so I try to push the right buttons. I pushed the right ones with Brian.”
As graduation rolls around, tears are often shed in fear that the familiar faces around Skutt Catholic might not ever be seen again, but not in Brian and Mr. Hildebrandt’s case. They still talk on a regular basis, and Brad gives Brian the same kind of advice he has always given him. After rounding up two individual state championship titles, helping out with three state titles, and being selected as a two-time all-conference candidate, Brian Peska graduated from Skutt Catholic in 2014 and is now wrestling for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “He has probably helped me out just as much this year as he did in high school,” Peska said. “Brad’s lasting impression on me is just what a great man he is. Through all of his success as a coach, he is and will always be that fun, easy-going guy he always has been. He is a very humble man who has been through a lot as a coach. He has touched the lives of so many people including myself. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Brad.” Hildebrandt agreed. “I am so proud of Brian’s decision to wrestle in college. It’s a difficult task, but from what I’ve heard he’s been making good decisions. This is what pleases me the most. He’s a great kid, and he’s really easy to like. He’s competitive, outgoing, and has a great heart. I’m very proud of him.”
Father Jeff and Darya Kaboli-Nejad: The Odd Couple
Father Jeff Mollner and senior Darya Kaboli-Nejad are the last two people most would pair as friends. Fr. Jeff, being a Catholic priest, and Darya, describing herself as not necessarily having a religion, have very opposing viewpoints and seem that they would not get along; somehow, however, despite their conflicting beliefs, the two have formed a unique friendship that started out on the Class of 2015’s freshmen road trip in 2011.
“I first met Darya on the bus to Lincoln Pius X while I was taking attendance; I read off her name and immediately looked at her and she said, ‘How do you know me?’ and I replied, ‘Look around the bus; who else here would be named Darya Kaboli-Nejad?’” Darya also recounted her first interaction with Fr. Jeff: “I was trying to be funny make him uncomfortable, so I asked him who his favorite rapper was. He actually replied and said, ‘Kanye West,’ so that was kind of a disappointment that he didn’t get uncomfortable.”
The 2011-2012 school year was not only Darya’s first year at Skutt Catholic, but Fr. Jeff’s as well. “I was still trying to get to know people, so it wasn’t until her sophomore year that we really starting talking often,” he recounted. “I got in a lot of trouble sophomore year, mostly for talking back or not having my shirt tucked in. I kind of just did it to make people mad,” Darya recalled. “I have this look I get on my face when I know I’m in trouble, and he knows it,” she said. After hearing Darya’s name being called to the office over the intercom multiple times, Fr. Jeff decided to see what was up. “I met with her in my office just to ask her, ‘What are you doing?’ I showed her that I wasn’t looking to get her into more trouble, but just to see if there was something wrong.” Over the next few months, Fr. Jeff would say hi to Darya in the halls as a reminder that he was there for her to talk to. “One day, she just showed up in my office and I got to know more about her family, softball, and her life, and then she kept coming back.”
Now, Darya and Fr. Jeff have a great friendship, and they talk about just about anything from gay rights, to abortion, or to other religions. Darya said, “Gay rights are my favorite topic to discuss, and obviously, since Fr. Jeff is a Catholic priest, we don’t necessarily agree on things like gay marriage, but the way he explains his opinion on the subject is never rude or judgmental. He has supporting evidence that is hard to argue with.” Usually, Darya says, their conversations get heated, more from her side than his, however; “It always ends up with him believing one thing and I believing another, and you can’t change what people believe.” Because Darya and Fr. Jeff have differing opinions, there is always something to talk about. “If you have two people who believe in the same things and do the same things, you’re going to run out of things to discuss.” One strange thing about Fr. Jeff and Darya’s conversations is that they never get awkward. “They probably should be, but they don’t. Fr. Jeff is such an easy guy to talk to that it’s never weird, and that’s what makes it so great.”
Mrs. Salerno: The Mom
Mrs. Salerno is more than just an expert in the field of Spanish, but an approachable source for students to turn to for advice.
Accidentally blabbering the name “Mom” at a teacher is always an awkward situation. Once it’s done, it’s done, and there’s no way to unsay what your mind subconsciously spoke out loud. Its an honest mistake to fess up to since you may spend more time with these people rather than your own parents on a weekday basis.
To call Mrs. Salerno “Mom” though, is far from a mistake for some students at Skutt Catholic. She has a reputation of being a motherly figure and having a reliable ear that will listen to any problem someone might be having. Not only is she a great listener, but she understands everything at a level that can relate to teenagers and is quick to give advice.
Junior Breanna Legleiter and senior Anna Korensky are more than just a few students to Mrs.Salerno. Almost every morning, you can find them lounging in her room, talking about whatever is on their minds. “My day without Mrs. Salerno would be like a raining day with no chance of sunshine,” s ays Korensky. “As a person, she’s a great listener. She is always there to listen to you and what’s going on. I have that adult at school I can talk to when something is bothering me,” says Legleiter.
Reciprocating the exact same thing, Salerno says she learns more from her students than she believes they learn from her. “I think a big part of it is that I genuinely enjoy their company–I don’t know if my sense of humor ever really developed past that of a teenager! Listening to my students talk about their lives and their perspectives on school makes me constantly reevaluate how I do things. I learn from every story, every experience,” explains Salerno.
Just as she completely transforms a student’s life, they seem to have the same impact on her as well. She learned this through an emotional experience she had with a student earlier in her teaching career.
“I had a student in my homeroom who was mildly mentally challenged and relentlessly bullied by the other kids. She gravitated towards me because I was “safe”- I listened without teasing. I heard about her home life, the boys she liked, her classes, her sweet new sandals. I graded papers as she talked. After I left my job at that high school to work elsewhere, I saw on the news that she had been killed in a car accident with her foster mom. I hadn’t even known she had been put into foster care. And the news reported that with her death, the horrific abuse case against her father had been dropped. How could I not see this? How could I talk to her every day and have no idea what she was enduring at home? I think of her often, and how much of my students’ worlds are unknown to me. How can I judge what I don’t even understand?”
The most rewarding thing for Mrs. Salerno throughout this whole process of connecting with her students is watching them grow up and achieve what she believes they deserve. She prays for them constantly and wants them to progress not only in their academic lives, but in their personal and spiritual lives as well.
The thing that strikes several people about this outstanding lady is that she sees the good in others despite the choices they make. “I think my own experience of raising three children through their high school and realizing that really good kids can make bad mistakes that absolutely don’t define them. That attitude makes me maybe more approachable than someone who hasn’t been through that,” explains Salerno.
There’s not even a debate valid as to why Mrs. Salerno is so loved at Skutt Catholic. Among the copious amounts of work and stress in her own life, she still carves out times in her day to communicate with students who need someone to talk to. By simply listening to people’s stories and struggles, she has become a source of comfort and reliability in the Skutt Catholic community.