It started last spring.
The Nebraska soccer team began coming together at the end of each practice and shouting “Big Ten champs!”
It’s the same squad that was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten by league coaches a few months later. That failed to deflate the team’s ambitions.
“In the past, we weren’t willing to think we were the best,” said senior midfielder Stacy Bartels from Omaha Skutt. “Our goal is to be Big Ten champs, and no one has settled for anything else than that.”
Now, they’re a team with some swagger — and the numbers to back it up.
The Huskers, 4-7 in the Big Ten last year, are 7-1 this year and in first place. They are 12-3-1 overall and are ranked No. 21 in the country with a No. 12 RPI, putting them in a good spot to make the national tournament for the first time since 2005. Most important, they’re just three games from accomplishing their goal.
“It’s been the best time of my life,” senior defender Kylie Greischar said. “It’s been a heck of a year.”
With six seniors returning, Bartels said, the Huskers knew last spring that this could be their chance to win their first regular-season conference title since 2000.
They talked to coach John Walker about what they needed to do to reach their goal.
“He said, ‘This is your team. You know what you want to accomplish. You have to push each other further than you ever thought to get there,’ ” Greischar said.
The Huskers took that to heart. They worked harder than ever on their fitness over the summer, running, playing and lifting every day.
It’s paid off, with players like Greischar and other defenders playing nearly every minute of every game down the stretch.
They’re playing as more of a unit. Everyone is on the same page, knows what’s expected and isn’t giving up silly plays. Defense isn’t just a defender’s job or offense just for the forwards.
“We’re the most collective team on the field,” Greischar said.
Talented newcomers have pushed the veterans, who know there is someone willing to dive in if they aren’t doing their job.
That hasn’t created dissension. Instead, a common goal has helped the seniors and the rookies bond, building a team chemistry that Bartels said has been a key to the team’s success.
“For me, it’s my last year,” she said. “We want to put it all on the table.”
Their success so far — going 5-0 in road league games, winning 10 of their past 11 overall, giving up just 17 goals in 16 games and scoring in 13 straight matches — has given the Huskers a confidence they lacked in their first two years in the Big Ten.
“Confidence is a huge thing in soccer,” Greischar said. “You have to have it to go out and take risks and trust your teammates. We’ve beat teams a lot of people didn’t think we’d beat.”
They will be challenged again this weekend.
The Huskers host Ohio State at 3 p.m. Friday and take on No. 16 Penn State at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Nebraska Soccer Field.
The Nittany Lions (12-3-1, 6-2-0) have won the last 15 Big Ten titles.
Even with their eyes on that prize, the Huskers won’t overlook the Buckeyes (9-4-3, 3-3-2). One game at a time, Bartels said, just like it’s been all season.
Then they’ll focus on Penn State, a thought that doesn’t send a jolt of doubt through the Huskers like it might have in the past.
“Once you start winning, you just kind of keep rolling. You just expect to win,” Bartels said. “We believe we are the best in the conference.”