The Nebraska soccer team's success this season is no surprise to coach John Walker.
The Huskers are 6-2-1, with a No. 20 NCAA RPI ranking and a No. 4 regional rating, and they're receiving votes in the coaches poll.
“We had a strong spring and saw a lot of growth in players individually, and as a result a more confident team emerged,” Walker said.
At this time last year, the Huskers were 5-6-1. But they had also played without forward Jordan Jackson and defender Ari Romero, two of the better players in the Big Ten.
Jackson missed most of the season with a knee injury, while Romero missed the start of the season while playing for Mexico at the under-20 World Cup. Their absence was difficult for the inexperienced Huskers to overcome.
This season, the Huskers have an improved defense, more scoring options and stronger depth. Walker said they've been practicing well.
All will be crucial as the Huskers take to the road to play Northwestern at 7 p.m. Friday and Illinois at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Wildcats (2-5-2) return 10 starters and are 2-1-1 at home. The Illini (5-2-2) are 4-0-1 at home.
Illinois boasts the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. Northwestern led No. 8 Penn State 2-0 before the Nittany Lions came back and won in double overtime.
“Illinois beat us comfortably last year and are the defending Big Ten tournament champions. So both games will be extremely difficult, as will every other conference game,” Walker said. “They are all potential one-goal or overtime games.”
Walker said NU's defense, although it still needs work, is much better than last year. The Huskers held then-No. 14 Denver without a shot attempt until the 45th minute last Sunday.
Senior Emma Stevens picked up her 24th career victory in net with three saves against Denver. She set a career-high for consecutive scoreless minutes at 251:30 before allowing a Pioneer goal.
Romero, who was named to this week's CollegeSoccer360.com Primetime Performers honor roll, and Jaylyn Odermann lead the defense.
NU has outshot opponents 180-99, including a 76-39 advantage in shots on goal. Walker said the Huskers have multiple scoring options — eight Huskers have tallied goals.
“Mayme (Conroy) scored 14 goals a year ago, Jordan (Jackson) has scored in double figures before, Jaycie (Johnson) is a talented finisher and people like Katie Kraeutner, Stacy Bartels and Hannah Dittmar are always going to chip in in this area, also,” Walker said.
Walker said it's nice to see the development of players like Ditt≠mar, Kylie Greischar and Sam Areman. Although not always starters, they've turned into consistent performers this season.
“All three are blue-collar players who have worked very hard on their games to get themselves on to the field,” he said.