Nebraska soccer slogged through the 2019 season with a 4-10-4 record, the school’s worst season in its 26-year history.
The future looked bleak. The COVID-19 pandemic initially postponed the 2020 season to the spring, which made matters even worse.
That was the turning point, the moment that a group of underclassmen jolted a once-conference power back to life.
A fiery end to the 2021 season showed the Huskers’ promise and a historic 2022 season proved the potential.
Nebraska soccer posted its best season since 2018 with an 8-7-5 record and a berth in the Big Ten semifinals. The team accomplished that with 12 in-state players and just one senior on the roster, the mark of a new era.
The records were an improvement, but the building of a new culture was an even bigger one.
“I think we had more of a fight, more of a belief,” senior Eleanor Dale said. “Now, we have a belief in ourselves that actually we are a good team, and we can compete with the best in the conference.”
That confidence took a while to come around in the 2022 season.
The Huskers dropped a match 5-1 against a nationally-ranked St. Louis squad on the road. It was a poor performance coming off the backs of a disappointing home loss to Portland.
Nebraska picked up home draws against USC and NC State the next week. That was when coach John Walker saw the fight that he sought from his team.
“I’m not sure at the time there was enough belief,” he said. “I would say from that stage on, there was much more belief in having success and much more purpose. At the end of it, we are here to compete, and we are good enough to have success within our conference and nationally as well.”
The rest of the season was an indicator of the culture shift that had occurred within the program. Nebraska picked up points in nine of the final 12 games, including a 2-2 draw against No. 16 Ohio State and a 4-2 win over No. 24 Penn State.
Dale and fellow senior Reagan Raabe were two players who had significant playing time in the 2021 spring season as freshmen in a still veteran-heavy team.
Since then, the relationships between the players have gotten stronger and helped lift the team to more results.
“At the time, I thought that our team had a really good vibe but I think it has only gotten better and our team culture has gotten stronger from that,” Raabe said. “I think the culture within our team has gotten to be a lot better from (spring 2021) and a lot closer. I think that was what made a difference from past years with the success we are having.”
Sarah Weber was the key piece to a loaded 2021 recruiting class that brought in 12 new players. She said she could sense some division between some of the younger players and the upperclassmen on the team.
“We had a large group of seniors mixed with a large group of freshmen, so I feel like there was definitely some disconnect there with how the team culture was supposed to look,” she said. “I mean that is going to happen when you have that big of an age gap. I feel like the vibe then was just to try and be in every game and not necessarily to compete and win games which is a big difference.”
The chemistry between all the players is strong.
Dale said they frequently get together outside of practice, whether it be for meals at the training table or at other events.
That bond comes from some of the players playing for the same high school or club teams before since half of the players on the roster are from Nebraska. Raabe said a lot of it is how selfless all the players are.
“I think having those strong relationships off the field helped form the team that was willing to work hard for each other on the field,” she said. “I think being closer with everyone in our daily lives has everyone on the same page, which makes it easier to compete for a common goal.
“Everyone is on an equal playing field. I think that has been really exciting because I have never been a part of a team like that genuinely cares for each other despite differences in playing time or seniority.”
Walker said building a great culture is one of the keys to the Huskers’ recent success. Some of that is ‘lost in the shuffle’ with all the moving parts in modern college athletics.
Since Nebraska’s soccer program is not as large as others like North Carolina and UCLA, building a great culture is a way for a developmentally focused program like Walker’s. He said collaboration between everyone in the facility is solid.
“That is the platform, the foundation that we have tried to use,” Walker said. “That is the biggest shift over the past year and a half: everyone collaborating with an emphasis on competing. That is the final piece to the puzzle.”
With a lot of momentum from last fall season, the Huskers tried to maximize their development in the spring exhibition season.
Nebraska went 7-1 in its matches and outscored opponents 19-5.
Walker said it was a great experimental period for them to try new things tactically and a huge opportunity to build off strengths from last fall.
This spring was about keeping the ball rolling and preparing for what could be a big fall season, Weber said.
“The progress last fall was crucial especially the second half of the season as our team really started to click and develop certain strengths as a group,” she said. “We know we have a unique opportunity with the whole team pretty much returning from last fall with the addition of some really talented players, so we wanted to make the most of spring and focus on some of our weaknesses.”
Because a majority of the roster returned from last season, Walker said there will be some outside expectations.
But he said the team did not listen to any of the noise last season when Nebraska was tabbed to finish 12th in the Big Ten. He wants his players to tune that out again this season and work hard to achieve the goals they set.
“The important thing is we train on a daily basis and keep doing the same things that we have done to allow us to be in a position where we have improved,” he said. “We made progress last season, but it was not enough. This time, it needs to be more consistent right from the get-go as we begin the season.”