All season, the Nebraska soccer team has rallied around winning a conference title.
Every practice ended with the words, “Big Ten champs.”
So now that the Huskers have accomplished that goal, what comes next?
Coach John Walker addressed that issue at practice this week as the top-seeded Huskers geared for their Big Ten tournament opener against No. 8 Minnesota at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Illinois.
Walker used the example of an Olympic runner who has broken the mile record, said Sam Areman, a junior defender from Firth, Neb.
“If we just refocus ourselves right away, we can do the same thing again,” she said. “We have to stay focused on what made us good and what helped us accomplish it in the first place.”
For Areman, that’s defense. She said that’s played a big role in No. 18 Nebraska winning its first regular-season title since 2000 and will be just as crucial in winning the tournament. The winner receives an automatic berth to nationals.
Nebraska (15-3-1, 10-1-0) has allowed just 20 goals in 19 matches, outscoring opponents 41-20.
The Huskers have a 23-10 conference scoring advantage even though their Big Ten opponents have had 28 more corner kick opportunities (67-39). In Big Ten action, NU has been outshot 195-148 but leads in shots on goal 68-64.
“I think there are a number of factors contributing to the team being improved defensively,” Walker said.
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He mentioned several, including quick transition when NU loses control of the ball, constant communication, toughness in terms of blocking shots and clearing crosses, discipline and problem-solving by those on the field.
He praised the leadership of his defenders and the commitment to defend from attacking players such as Jordan Jackson, Mayme Conroy and Jaycie Johnson, the Huskers’ leading scorers.
“Offense scores goals and win games,” Areman said, “but you need defense, too. Everyone has been a lot more collective on what we’re doing. It’s not just the last four people. We’ve come together as a team, not letting the ball get there and being on the same page on how we want to defend other teams.”
A lot of that has come from experience. Areman said veterans like Ari Romero and Maritza Hayes have put in a lot of hours on their individual defending.
Areman recently became a starter and rotates in along with Romero, Hayes, Jaylyn Odermann and Kylie Greischar. The players work hard for each other and have confidence in how they’ll do at the tournament.
The Huskers are on the same page as to whether they are pressing — covering closely and trying to win the ball back immediately — or holding, when they are sitting back, staying compact and trying to intercept passes.
“It’s mainly to be able to control the situation better,” Areman said. “If everyone is doing the same thing, we’re more in control than the other team. It’s trying to get an advantage over them.”
The Huskers have an edge from the start in senior goalie Emma Stevens of Corona, Calif., the all-time saves leader at NU.
She had three saves in last Friday’s title-clinching victory over Indiana to earn her career-best 15th win of the year.
She has a 0.90 goals-against average in Big Ten matches, allowing 10 goals in 11 matches. In Big Ten road matches, she has a 0.77 goals against average, stopping 29 shots in five matches.
“I honestly think she’s the backbone of our team,” Areman said. “She’s such a communicator back there. She has a ton of experience and knows how to lead from the back.”
Even though Minnesota (11-6-1, 4-5-2) is the eighth seed, the Gophers have knocked off some of the Big Ten’s best — defending champion Penn State and second seed Michigan. However, they’ve scored only eight goals in 11 league matches.
“We have to stick to our basics and play our game,” Areman said.