The Nebraska soccer team’s season has been filled with ups and downs, weather delays and overtime winners, and ultimately, a lot of growth for a team that missed the Big Ten Tournament last season.
The unpredictable journey is nothing new for coach John Walker, who has been with the program since its humble beginning in 1994. This season’s fluidity has placed the Huskers just one point away from clinching a berth in this season’s conference tournament and a win in Wednesday’s regular-season finale would push the Huskers to sixth place in the standings.
Walker took sometime to sit down with the Journal Star's Shea Carlson to discus the season, his seniors and a variety of other topics ahead of the match with the Spartans.
Q: It’s been kind of an interesting season so far, a lot of ups, some downs. How would you assess the team’s performance at this point?
JW: "Obviously, this past Sunday we didn’t perform well and the Iowa game was another game we didn’t perform well, but I think all the other games going back to Baylor we’ve done fairly well. We’re in the position we’re in. It’s such a tight conference. You play 10 games in conference and they’re all one-goal games or overtime ties. We’re where we’re at right now which is we control everything in terms of postseason, conference tournament and NCAA Tournament. Our RPI is still in a pretty good place so it’s been a pretty good season. The injuries don’t help and obviously everyone has injuries but the tricky part for us is the experience component.
"Starting with a group of defenders and midfielders, Caroline (Buelt) has been hurt all year, her hamstring has been hurt all year. Mikaela (Loebel) and Sinclaire (Miramontez) is obviously a big one. So that part you go from being an experienced group to less experienced. I think with Sinclaire, I’m not saying anything that anyone doesn’t know; like one coach described her, she’s the most influential player on any team in the conference. Her defending responsibilities, her organization, individual defense, playmaking, set plays. She’s one of the best defenders in the country. So that part is tricky and having it happene so late in the season, it’s not like you can change much in your structure. If it was game four, you could, so no question that puts us at a more challenging position.
"We still have a lot of great players and a good attitude and work ethic so I think the team feels OK."
Q: You mentioned that Baylor loss and it seems like that five-game road trip at the start of the season is where this team really found itself; is that kind of how you view this season?
JW: "Oh, for sure. The Baylor one was kind of a low moment. A recognition that our level of competition wasn’t high enough, our commitment to the penalty area wasn’t high enough, our ability to handle stress in tough moments (wasn’t high enough). It was the best thing that happened to this group. The next match we played Duke on the road. We lost but played well and it was a battle and a completely different team. Since then, I think you’ve seen a team that’s much more committed in all competitive areas of the game. Much better at handling what we call 'play-after-error moments' and has grown quite a bit since then.
"The last Wisconsin loss was difficult, it came down to one play. Against Illinois we didn’t start well, we got counter attacked on and I think that was a game where the first part of it the lack of on-field organization was obvious. The players recognized that too so we addressed it in practice this morning and I think we’ll be OK."
Q: On a bigger note, every senior class is different and this one is pretty unique with Faith (Carter) transferring in and Savnah (Uveges) battling through injuries most of her career, how do you feel their legacy will be perceived?
JW: "I think perseverance would be the word that comes up. There have been different scenarios they’ve had to overcome and that would be one. The second thing is development. It doesn’t always come right after your freshman year; sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes it just clicks at different ages for them. Some of those girls are really playing some of their best soccer.
"I really feel for Caroline (Buelt) because of this hamstring injury she's had since the beginning of September. It’s been frustrating for her because she hasn’t been able to practice and she’s only been able to play some and not at her top speed. But I think all these girls are much better players than they were a year ago."
Q: I know you like to let the players speak first for the program but a lot of them have brought up the coaching staff almost immediately when talking to me, what does that say about your staff?
JW: "I’ve got a great staff, that’s for sure. Brandon Roarty, our volunteer coach, has done a great job. He’s a really enthusiastic guy who wants to learn. Then Marty (Everding) is a great guy, a positive guy that just does a great job with keepers. Ian (Bridge) just has so much experience. The one thing is we’re committed to their development. We’re a driven program. I know all the old coaches, all three of us, we’re all patient. Sometimes as a young coach, you want everything right away or if something doesn’t work, you think the players need to work harder rather than accessing what we really need to improve upon. Hopefully that helps the players. I’m not here to say we have all the answers but they’re great to work with. The nice thing (about this team) is they want the feedback, the detail, they want to know if something goes wrong and you don’t always get that with young athletes. They want responsibility and they just want us to help them get better."
Q: So 25 years with the program, that’s a pretty long time, have you had a chance to reflect on how much this program has grown over that time?
JW: "To be honest, Shea, I don’t really think in those terms. We just want to work with the players every year and help them get better. I’d say the one thing over the past (25 years) is to give more ownership to the players. Treat them like adults. Sometimes as a younger coach you just say “do this, do that,” but these are bright young people and they want ownership. If you give them ownership, they’re more invested in it. As a result, the culture is very strong. It’s rare for us to lose a game because they didn’t work hard or compete hard."
Q: With one game left in the regular season you have a chance to move up the standings, what are the goals for this team with the postseason so close?
JW: "Our goal is to have success (Wednesday) and then get ourselves into the NCAA Tournament by doing well in the Big Ten Tournament. We have a very strong strength of schedule, which helps. We have excellent road wins against teams like Penn State and N.C. State. First thing though is that we need to take care of things and play well (Wednesday)."
Q: How nice is it for these seniors to get another chance to go out with a W?
JW: "I don’t think they were happy with their performance on Sunday so it is a nice way to get another chance to play at home."