It’s been a recurring theme. A season with more losses than wins and an opportunity to rebuild. That’s been a familiar feeling in Nebraska when it comes to football.
The Nebraska Pride, a professional women’s tackle football team based in Omaha, finds itself in a similar situation to the Husker Football team. Both programs are in the process of bringing in new players, coaches and culture.
After an inaugural season record of 3-3 in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), the longest-running professional women’s football league in the US, the Pride’s championship dream ended in a 30-7 playoff loss to the Houston Energy last June.
The WFA comprises 65 teams separated into three divisions based on skill. Like college athletics, the structure has the top division, WFA Pro, comparable to a Division I team. The next step down is similar to Division II and then Division III.
Even as a first-year program with most players having little to no football experience, the Pride finished the season as the league’s No. 3 ranked Division II team.
Head coach Nancy Javaux-Major said she’s thrilled to see where this new season will go.
“We made it to the playoffs based on pure athleticism last year,” Javaux-Major said. “So this year, it’s gonna be exciting to see what we can do when players have technique and fundamentals coupled with their athleticism. I think it’s just gonna pave the way even more for us to be successful this year.”
Heading into the Pride’s second season, the roster has doubled to 43 women and non-binary players, with half of the team returning for another year. Since the Nebraska Pride operates as a non-profit, each player has to pay-to-play or fundraise for their travel and training fees which come to around $1,000 per season.
Before joining, most players have a background in athletics but football experience is rare. Javaux-Major said one out of 20 players have played flag football or when they were young.
Returning defensive end Ang Bennett said they were looking to join a basketball team when they moved to Omaha, but the season had just ended. That’s when a friend suggested they try women’s tackle football instead.
“I was like, eh, I don’t know about this,” Bennett said. “But I went, tried it out, and ended up a cornerback.”
Traditionally, there tends to be a stigma surrounding women’s sports and the cliques that form amongst the players. It’s no secret that culture can make or break a team, especially when they rely on social media and word of mouth to recruit.
“Some of the players haven’t been a part of a team that really felt like a family and felt like they were accepted as they are,” Javaux-Major said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing that’s going to set us apart, is going to really bring this team together. We’re very set on creating an environment where people feel welcomed.”
Bennett said their team was successful last year because the players started learning more about each other on & off the field.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest player,” Bennett said. “And that’s cliche, but it’s very true. In order to bring the weak player up, everybody has to be willing to go down there and lift that person up. That’s what I want to see. And that’s the culture that I believe is being manifested. That’s what is going to create and sustain that type of culture, bring along other coaches and people who are like-minded who also want that same thing.”
With a sizable growth in the roster, Javaux-Major brought five new assistant coaches on board, including an offensive & defensive coordinator. Javaux-Major said the assistant coaches bring years of football experience and help level out the personalities of the coaching staff.
“Our new offensive coordinator Scott McConnell is a motivator,” Javaux-Major said. “He’s always jazzed up, and he’s gonna get you jazzed up too. But then Jen Hirokawa was in the military, so everything is black and white. It’s in your face, intense that way. They’re gonna be a nice balance because I’m super calm. Probably a little too calm sometimes.”
Even though football is a male-dominated sport, that doesn’t stop the Nebraska Pride.
Wide receiver Tiffany Wright grew up playing football with her brothers, but when she got to middle school, she wasn’t allowed to play with the boys. Wright said that she uses that experience as motivation to prove herself on the field.
“To those who say football is a man’s sport, come watch us; let us prove you wrong,” Wright said. “Just because we’re not men doesn’t mean we can’t do the same things as men. We’re all out here putting in the hard work, effort, energy, focus and time. All that, just like a man would, to play the same sport.”