At 5-foot-3, Nebraska soccer player Ari Romero hardly looks intimidating.
But as the Big Ten defender of the year, her presence — and reputation — is huge.
She’s spearheaded the defensive effort as the No. 10 Huskers have captured Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and now turn their sights to the NCAA tournament. Second-seeded NU hosts Southeastern Louisiana at 2 p.m. Friday at the Nebraska Soccer Field.
“Ari is vital from a defending standpoint in four areas: strong individual defending technique, excellent ball-winner, very good organizer and inspirational with her own effort,” coach John Walker said.
Romero, from Surprise, Ariz., has started every game she’s played at NU. She missed just one match this season when she was called up to play for the Mexican national team.
Opponents often underestimate Romero because of her size. She’s learned from the mismatches and uses them to her advantage.
She lets nothing intimidate her, a confidence she knows her teammates feed off during matches.
“I have to be the one to portray the picture — tough, strong, mentally tough, all those characteristics,” Romero said.
Romero has played every minute of the last 13 matches and at least 80 minutes of each game for NU, which is making its first tournament appearance since 2005. She anchors the defense along with seniors Maritza Hayes and Kylie Greischar, junior Sam Areman and sophomore Jaylyn Odermann.
That experience, their communication on the field and their ability to problem solve have kept the Huskers in many matches. NU has given up just 22 goals and is 11-2 in one-goal matches. Even if a goal does get past the defense, the players don’t panic.
“You have to shake it off,” Romero said. “The next play is your redemption.”
Her standout play for NU and Mexico has put Romero in good position to play professionally, Walker said.
She’d love that chance, once she takes care of business at Nebraska. Now it’s all about Friday’s game, and then hopefully the next round.
That home-field advantage could be huge, Romero said, especially if the Huskers can feed off a big crowd.
NU’s aim all season was to win the Big Ten, but Romero doesn’t want to make any predictions about NCAA tournament.
“We don’t want to look so far down the road that we forget this week,” she said. “We don’t want to underestimate the opponent.”
Southeastern (14-3-5) advanced by winning the Southland Conference tournament. The Lions have 11 shutouts and have given up more than one goal just once. Senior Kelsey Salcido leads the offense with eight goals and 10 assists.
Romero doesn’t worry much about scouting. She’s concentrating on shoring up little things she noticed during the Big Ten tournament.
“I want to focus on our team,” she said. “That’s pretty much how we approach each game. We are in control of ourselves.”