GRAND ISLAND — Brenda Urbanek never had an interest in criminal justice until she took a couple of classes at Kearney State College.
But Urbanek, who is one of the best softball players in KSC/University of Nebraska at Kearney history, was fascinated by the topic and pursued a career in law enforcement. After serving as a Kearney police officer and an investigator from 1984 to 1990, she joined the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center staff in Grand Island.
Urbanek currently serves as the training center’s director. She is the first woman to serve in the role and oversees the five academies and investigates officer misconduct throughout the state, she said.
It’s a critical position, especially in today’s climate where law enforcement is closely monitored.
"It’s a very challenging time right now for law enforcement in our country," Urbanek said. "The overwhelming majority of people who choose to be in law enforcement and public service like this do an outstanding job, and you never hear about them. My husband was an officer in Kearney for 31 years before he passed away from cancer, and he had a mantra of ‘Just do the right thing for the right reasons in the right way and you’ll be just fine.’"
Urbanek, who’s maiden name is Gonnerman, wouldn’t be in the position she is today if it wasn’t for her time at KSC.
After graduating from Gresham High School in 1980, Urbanek attended KSC because she "loved to play softball and didn’t want to end up on the pig farm" she grew up on, she said.
The decision worked out well for Urbanek, who had an immediate effect for the Lopers’ softball team as a freshman in 1981.
Her success resulted in her becoming the first All-American in program history. It also helped the Lopers achieve new heights. They went 44-17, by far the best winning percentage in the program’s short history, and placed third at the NAIA National Championships.
"I don’t really know what was key for me other than a lot of hard work," said Urbanek, who played shortstop. "We had the (Cushing) Coliseum, and that was the only thing that we could practice in during the winter. We would practice at 10 o’clock at night because that was the only time softball could get in there. There were just a lot of hard-working people on those teams throughout the years."
In 1982, Urbanek set the then-program record with a .432 batting average to earn All-American honors for a second consecutive year.
The Lopers went 38-6 and placed fifth in the national tournament.
Urbanek suffered an injury in her junior season, which hampered her ability to produce on the field. She returned in time for the national tournament and helped the Lopers to a second-place finish. Kearney hosted the national championship for a second straight season, but the Lopers lost in the title game to Emporia State, 9-2.
Urbanek was named to the all-tournament team, which she also accomplished the first two years of her career.
"I was injured in the conference tournament in Joplin, Missouri," she said. "We were playing on a football field because it had rained so much, so we had to set up diamonds on the football field on Astroturf. I got slid into at second base and it messed up my knee a little bit. I was out for three weeks and then made it back in time for all of the games but one at nationals."
The Lopers lost experienced players after the 34-12 season in 1983. But that didn’t stop them from competing. Urbanek hit .365 and drove in 38 runs as a senior to assist the Lopers to 31-18 record and another appearance in the national tournament. She earned All-American honors as a senior in 1984.
She departed KSC with the program season records for batting average (.432), runs scored (52), sacrifice hits (23) and assists (139).
She also was the career leader in runs scored (174), sacrifice hits (45) and assists (499), marks she still holds as well as the record for assists in a season.
It was a special collegiate career, and she played a major role in the start of the Lopers’ impressive success throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
"It was amazing," said Urbanek of the program’s success during her four-year career.
"The first year we went to Sam Houston State in Texas and that was a long drive. It was a lot of fun. My sophomore and junior years, Kearney hosted nationals. Between fighting the rain — it seemed like we were getting rained out every other day — it was great. The community supported us, they supported the other teams, and it was really special to play at home at that level.
"Then my senior year, we were in a rebuilding season and weren’t expected to make it to nationals. We graduated on a Friday morning, crawled in a van, and drove to North Dakota, played all weekend and won, and drove from North Dakota to Indianapolis to play in nationals. That was fun because no one really thought we would make it."
Urbanek was inducted into the UNK Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995. She remembers her time as a Loper fondly and has her KSC letter and diploma hanging up in her office.
"I always laugh when I hear college athletes complain about this and that because our spring trips we would take vans to Texas or somewhere where it was supposed to be warm," she said. "For breakfast, the coach would go out and buy four boxes of cereal and a couple of gallons of milk, and a lot of times for lunch Coach (Hank) Dicke would actually buy a ham and slice it thin. We were known to have a ham on the bench in the dugout because we were playing back-to-back games. It was a completely different time back then, but it was special."
Urbanek and her late husband, Greg, have 26-year-old twin daughters, Emma and Maggie.
Urbanek follows UNK athletics and was eager to see how the softball team would perform under first-year head coach Katie Ackermann this spring. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lopers played just 26 games, going 13-13. It marked the first year since 2012 that the Lopers finished with at least a .500 record.
"I was really disappointed that their season got cut short this year because I was hoping to see with the coaching change how things might turn around a little bit," Urbanek said.