This may be one of the best times ever in regard to the talent level for girls soccer in Nebraska.
There are lots of players planning to play college soccer at the NCAA Division I and II levels. In 2018, the Nebraska women’s soccer team only had three players from Nebraska on the team, but that will change in future years, with at least seven in-state players committed to Nebraska.
But most people won’t ever watch some of those good players because the players have made the decision to not play high school soccer in favor of year-round club soccer. Most people aren’t traveling the region to watch club matches, but they’ll watch the players during the high school season, especially at the state tournament. There were about 3,700 fans at the girls state championship matches last year.
Lincoln East sophomore Haley Peterson is one of those players committed to play in college for the Huskers. She committed to Nebraska about one month ago, fulfilling a goal.
“I’m a really competitive person, and I really like competing with others and Division I is the highest level,” Peterson said.
Peterson started on varsity right away as a freshman. She’ll be the first Lincoln East player for the Huskers in about 15 years.
“This kid has got a lot of skills. She’s definitely at another level,” Lincoln East coach Chuck Morgan said. “She can accelerate, she’s got some great moves, good vision. I think (Nebraska soccer coach John Walker) is right on this one.”
Like many high school soccer players, Peterson plays for a club team. But with her club team, Villarreal Nebraska, the players play for their school in the spring. That’s also the case for other clubs in Omaha, Gretna and Lincoln.
But a decision by one Omaha club will have an impact on high school soccer for at least one year, and maybe in the future.
The big shift occurred when Sporting Omaha FC took its existing club and made the decision to elevate its program and become Nebraska’s only girls development academy. As part of the U.S. soccer structure development academy players for all teams must choose to participate in the academy full-time and forgo playing for their high school teams. The teams train several times per week and travel the country for matches.
That means about 40 girls who could be playing high school soccer this spring in Nebraska won't.
High school soccer will go on, and participation remains high.
But for some teams, it will be a big difference. At Lincoln Southwest, coach Thomas Nettleton has two players in the school who are committed to play for Nebraska, juniors Gwen Lane and Lily Sturek, but they’re not playing for their school this year.
Millard North lost five players from its state championship team who could have played, including goalie Sidney Anderson, who as a freshman had several big saves in the championship match.
Omaha Marian lost four players to the club. Omaha Burke and Elkhorn South lost five apiece. Millard South lost Lindsey Prokop, and the 34 goals she scored last year.
Nebraska recruit Elana Webber attends Lincoln Pius X, but isn’t playing for the Thunderbolts.
But at Millard West, Nebraska recruits Katie Stoneburner and Reagan Raabe are still playing high school.
Millard West coach Jacque Tevis-Butler says it’s disheartening to see this happen.
“I played in Omaha at Millard North from 1984 to 1988, and the first three years we were a club sport,” Tevis-Butler said. “And my parents were part of the group that petitioned (the NSAA) to get us sanctioned, so my senior year was the first year we were sanctioned, and it was the coolest thing ever. Here is this lowly club sport that nobody cared about finally gets some recognition.
“And now I feel like we’re taking a step backwards. I feel like these kids are kind of being denied an opportunity to play for their school. I know there is the promise of the (development academy) and the link to national team, but really, how many kids are really going to end up there.”
Nettleton has coached club soccer, so he isn’t against it. And he can understand that for a very elite player, playing with a great development academy team, it may be the best route.
But for Nettleton, it would be tough to replace the high school soccer experience. Nettleton read an article about Sophie Jones, a star player in California who after playing for a club team for three years played for her high school as a senior.
“We’re looking at the reverse end of it,” Nettleton said. “In places that have hotbeds for talent, they’re looking at it the exact opposite, and kids are now trying to come back to high school because they don’t want to be a professional at 17 years old. Especially on the girls side, where there is not a sustainable professional league for them to jump into.”