Redshirting in college athletics is a complicated process for athletes, physically and mentally. Focusing on Husker's women's soccer, Ally Napora and Cece Villa share their experiences.
Believe it or not, redshirting in college athletics began in Nebraska. In 1938, Warren Alfson requested to sit out his sophomore year due to his low placement on the depth chart. This worked out for Alfson, who became an all-Big Six and all-American player in his collegiate career.
Nearly 90 years later, the redshirt has become a huge part of college athletics, as it allows players to retain eligibility for an extra year for a variety of reasons. While every sport uses the redshirt, you can see a large range of the experience through Nebraska women’s soccer.
While often a strategic move that ends up being beneficial to the players, it is rarely their call to make. While it is easy to debate from an outsider’s perspective whether or not a given player can make an impact right away, or if they can be more useful to the team in future years. But the impact redshirting can have on athletes is often overlooked.
The Huskers’ women’s soccer program has signed 20 recruits since the class of 2021, and added multiple transfers in this timeframe. Entering the 2023 season, the roster carries 27 players, slightly below the NCAA average of 30. 10 of these players have taken a redshirt at some point in their careers as Huskers.
Some players go to the college level knowing they will likely be asked to take a redshirt year, while others expect to contribute right away. Often, even when players are top notch high school athletes, an extra year of development can be beneficial to them in adjusting to a higher level of play.
Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Cece Villa and redshirt sophomore forward Allison Napora are two players who took a redshirt and sat out a year, retaining an extra year of eligibility.
Villa took a redshirt after coming to campus expecting an opportunity to earn playing time.
“Originally when I came, I thought, you know what, I’m going to have a chance to play,” Villa said. “Pretty quickly it became clear that we had two goalies who were older than I was, and I kind of knew I wouldn’t be able to play as a freshman.”
Instead of taking the year off, or sulking, or looking elsewhere for opportunities, Villa committed to spending that year working on getting better and doing what she could to help the team in the future.
“My coach would say, ‘remember, this is a marathon here’ and how I needed to really focus on myself and improve my game over the next year in order to help the team when it’s my time to play,” Villa said, “I was, you know, a high school goalkeeper, and during that year I had to work hard to become a college level goalie.”
Napora’s redshirting experience was a different situation entirely. After playing in her freshman season, in which she scored five goals over the season in a reserve role, Napora suffered a back injury that required surgery.
Napora said she remembers the change well.
“I played in two exhibition games to start the year, before I got injured and needed surgery, so that kind of made that decision for me. I didn’t really have any other option.”
This is the other main way redshirts have become prevalent in college athletics. The NCAA can grant redshirt years to those who have suffered season ending injuries before playing a majority of the games in a year.
Whether it be because of an injury, or an excess of depth on a team, redshirting can benefit athletes in a lot of ways. One of the ways that Villa said she benefited from redshirting during her freshman year at UNL was academically as she was named to the student-athlete honor roll three times and was named Academic All Big-Ten in 2022.
“Personally, I don’t know if I would’ve been as successful academically,” Villa said.
I still needed that little bit of support to transition to college, and I think I still would’ve been able to find that support, but it would’ve had to look a lot different.”
The University of Nebraska prides itself on the resources it has available to its athletes, and both Villa and Napora cited these resources as a big part of their redshirt years.
“You name it, we have it here for athletes, and that’s helped me in every way,” Villa said. “Tutors and support in the academic side, and then my coach is always willing to do one-on-one sessions, go over film, really anything I need to be successful.”
Napora also lauded the access Nebraska athletics gave her to medical experts during her recovery.
“The access I had to the surgeon himself was really beneficial, because all I had to do was text him if I had any concerns,” Napora said. “Then obviously our athletic trainer has been really nice, she’s able to reach out to other medical fields to chiropractors or whatever I needed. It just helps that everyone is willing to figure out ‘what could fix this, what could make this feel better.’”
Marty Everding has seen firsthand the work that goes on during these preparation and recovery years. As an assistant coach for the Huskers’ soccer team, he works with these athletes during both competition and redshirt years.
“As a redshirt, they’re able to get everything that any other athlete gets, minus the competition experience,” Everding said. “And so that’s something that we remind them of when they’re getting ready to take this year.”
One of the biggest challenges athletes often have during their redshirt years has nothing to do with physical condition. Rather, it involves staying motivated and upbeat while not being able to compete with their team.
“Knowing that you’re getting up and going to watch your teammates play, and not able to contribute in a way you used to, makes a completely different perspective,” Napora said. “I wouldn’t say I wasn’t part of it, but not being able to contribute on that field; it hurts, like it’s really hard.”
Villa said she spent time focusing on staying motivated while sitting out. From an outside perspective, it may seem easy to either slack off for that season, or to work extra hard for the next year. Mentally it is not so simple for athletes in these situations.
“When you know you’re not gonna play, at first it’s like, is it worth it?” Villa said. “But for me, it’s been my dream to play soccer at this level, and I didn’t want to give that up so quickly, and that has been a huge motivational factor, I’ve had this goal for such a long time, it wasn’t something I could give up in just a few months.”
It’s possible that a player is in a position to redshirt, but circumstances demand they see the field, that they start playing midway through. This would burn their redshirt year. But that decision would be mutually agreed upon by the coach and player.
“It’s a conversation we have with them,” Everding said. “If you’re No. 3, and numbers one and two go down and can’t play, are you willing to give up that year of eligibility to come in for them? There’s really a lot that goes into the conversation before they make a decision about their redshirt years.”
Napora and Villa said they both hope to make an impact when the season starts in August. The work and recovery they’ve put in during their redshirt year ensures that they’ll be prepared when their time comes.