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First things first: The Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame is no museum.

Certainly, the 7,000-square-foot space is filled with the faces and uniforms, medals and trophies that have defined Nebraska high school athletics since the 1800s.

The trophy from the first state basketball championship in 1911 sits on a shelf next to a picture of the Beatrice team that claimed it. Omaha South’s runner-up banner from that contest hangs from the ceiling.

A strange wooden contraption challenges visitors to guess what it had to do with football (spoiler: it’s a ball cleaner from Schuyler High School) and a leather nose guard harkens back to the days before football helmets were made of thick, padded plastic.

But the space also beckons the young.

A big screen allows visitors to virtually “shoot” baskets, working their way from outdoor hoops on the screen to a school gym to Pinnacle Bank Arena (think Wii technology). The highest virtual points-getter can cut down the net from a nearby hoop.

Murals dare visitors to gauge their arm span against the state’s best high school players. A tiered wooden awards podium invites visitors to climb onto the winner’s spot.

Call it an exhibit hall, said Executive Director Chuck Johnston.

“We want it to be educational, informational and interactive,” he said. “We don’t want people to look at it like a museum.”

Johnston would love for the exhibit hall to become a regular stop for fourth-graders who come to Lincoln each year for Heritage School or a tour of Memorial Stadium.

It sits west of the Cornhuskers' stadium, a work in progress funded by donations, sponsors and proceeds from events sponsored by its partners: The Nebraska School Activities Association, the Nebraska Coaches Association and Nebraska State Athletic Administrators Association.

The Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, run by a foundation of the same name, has been around since 1994. Every year it inducts players who have been out of high school at least 15 years, as well as coaches, officials and teams. It gives a family award, an inspiration award and a “great moments” award.

When the NSAA built its new offices at 500 Charleston St. in 2008, space was reserved for the exhibit hall. But it wasn’t until January 2014 that the space opened with its first exhibits, the new flooring helping to separate the exhibit areas: football (marked with turf), track and cross country, wrestling, golf, basketball, volleyball, tennis, baseball and softball.

Since then, the foundation -- staffed by Johnston and Assistant Executive Director Mike Rasmussen -- has continued to add to its exhibits.

Today, photos of Nebraska high school greats greet visitors as the walk in: Omaha Tech graduate and Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, Elkhorn track star and Olympic competitor Alice Schmidt, football stars Johnny Rodgers and Mick Tingelhoff, along with others.

Money from an anonymous donor -- a businessman impressed by the impact longtime Southeast coach and athletic director Wally McNaught had on his students – paid for a theater area in his name.

A mannequin wears Cornhusker icon Eric Crouch’s high school football uniform. Helmets from more than 70 of the state’s high schools line the walls. Papillion-La Vista and Nebraska volleyball star Gina Mancuso’s National Gatorade Player of the Year trophy is there -- the only national award won by a high school athlete in the state.

There are several interactive screens at the exhibit hall, the “crown jewel” of the bunch in the middle: a display with five touchscreens that contains a timeline of Nebraska sports dating back to 1854.

A joint effort between the foundation and Nebraska Educational Television, each screen can hold 300 images. Touch one of the pictures, news articles or videos floating by on the screens to watch the footage, or read about the picture. Each screen allows visitors to go further into the subject -- more pictures, more facts and figures and headlines.

With a touch, visitors can watch the last seconds of the 1971 boys state basketball championship when a 20-foot shot by Lincoln East player Scott Copple clinched the championship. They can see Alex Gordon in Southeast and Nebraska and Royals games.

One of the best parts, Johnston said, is that they can keep adding to it.

The most complete exhibit area is basketball, named for Elkhorn Coach Gene Kruger after a group of his supporters raised money in honor of the 91-year-old who is still a volunteer coach for the girls’ basketball team.

Such sponsors help fuel the exhibits, Johnston said, and the foundation's plans include adding more interactive video games, installing a small putting green in the golf exhibit and adding gymnastics and swimming memorabilia.

The heart of the space is the Hall of Honor, a round room that lists the name of athletes inducted into the hall of fame along the walls. A TV screen in the middle of the room allows visitors to learn more about each one.

Johnston said the exhibit hall is designed to fulfill the foundation motto "Honoring Our Past to Inspire the Future" and it recognizes the part high school sports play in a community and culture of the nation.

“I think it’s ingrained in the fabric of high school in our nation,” Johnston said. “When kids remember high school, they remember going to football games on Friday nights, or playing in games ... it’s part of who we are as Americans.”

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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