Last year was the 25th year that soccer was a sanctioned high school sport by the Nebraska School Activities Association, officially starting in 1988.
With that in mind, a group of longtime soccer coaches took on a yearlong project of researching and voting on the best players in the state during that time frame.
The group released its honored teams — 25-Year Nebraska XI soccer teams — just before this year’s state tournament, which begins a six-day run at Creighton University on Wednesday with Class A boys first-round action.
Soccer has seen growth in the number of schools and players participating as well as state tournament attendance. When the current two-class format began in 1997, 11,764 fans attended the state tournament. Last year, a record 23,084 fans came out.
In the beginning, there were 27 boys and 27 girls team. This year there are 67 girls teams and 66 boys teams.
That’s not to say there weren’t great players in the first decade of NSAA soccer.
“The core reason for doing this is to remember some of these great teams and players and remind people about them,” said Joe Rauth of Omaha, who helped lead the project.
Rauth helped get soccer elevated from club to varsity status as a player at Creighton Prep in the 1970s, and coached at Creighton Prep and Omaha Westside. He’s now an assistant girls coach at Millard North.
Rauth gathered a group of coaches who had long-term perspective on high school soccer, many of whom have won state championships.
The initial list of names was compiled from all-state teams picked by the Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha World-Herald, and the list of Gatorade Player of the Year winners.
In the end, 12 boys coaches and 10 girls coaches voted on the teams, including Lincoln East boys coach Jeff Hoham, Lincoln Pius X boys coach Harlan Milder, former Southeast boys coach Linda Wilson and Lincoln East girls coach Chuck Morgan.
Performance in high school soccer was the primary consideration, but in the event of a tough decision, college and pro careers also could be considered because stats were more easily available.
Eight schools were represented on the boys first team, led by three from two-time state champion Millard North.
Six schools were represented on the girls first team, including three each from 11-time champion Omaha Marian and six-time champion Millard North.
Former Nebraska and current Philadelphia Eagles kicker Alex Henery made the boys first team. Several of the girls chosen played soccer at Nebraska.
Three boys players and three girls players from Lincoln schools were selected. Chris Hamburger, a 2002 Lincoln Southeast graduate, was on the first team, along with A.J. Dingldine of Lincoln East. Lincoln Pius X 2008 grad Nate Polak was a third-team selection.
Hamburger helped Southeast win its first soccer state championship in 2001, and played in college at Drake and professionally.
Carly Peetz, a 2006 Lincoln Pius X grad who went on to play at Nebraska, was on the first team. Lincoln Southeast grad Paige Nielsen, who scored 79 goals in her career at Lincoln Southeast, was a second-team pick. Nielsen won an NCAA title at North Carolina in 2012.
Lincoln East’s Vern Fitzgerald was a third-team selection.
There is one player on the list who will play in this year’s tournament -- Omaha Skutt senior Elizabeth Bartels, who has scored 20 goals with 10 assists this season.
While compiling information on the players, Rauth said many players mentioned how great playing high school soccer was, because you got to represent your school and play in front of large crowds.
An important club-team soccer match might be attended by 300 friends and family, but a few years ago, the Lincoln East-Omaha South boys state final was played in front of 5,000 fans.
“Playing high school sports was an unbelievable experience for me,” Peetz wrote in her nomination form. “Pius X, and Nebraska in general, has such great support for its high school athletes. I know I was especially fortunate to be surrounded by such talented players during my career at Pius X, three of them being my sisters.
“I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. We were so competitive that you’d think every sprint and every drill was a state final soccer game. I loved every single second of it and had a blast.”
The teams included players from each decade.
“There are a lot of positives over the years,” Rauth said. “Here’s what I think the difference is. There was always at least one or two stellar players that played 20 and 25 years ago that if we took them then and put them on the field today, they could still perform.
“The difference is, a state championships team then had seven or eight good players, and now the 16th player is as good as the eighth player. It’s deeper, there is no doubt about it. But there were phenomenal players back then.”