Nebraska boss John Walker and his Cornhuskers did not enjoy the beginning of life in the Big Ten last year, as the former Big XII behemoth found their new waters treacherous indeed. The program patriarch has endured a mostly unhappy last half decade in charge as Nebraska’s relevance on the national college soccer scene continues to grow more and more marginalized. The Cornhuskers were once one of the Big XII’s premiere bullies, using brute force and offensive talents like Christine Latham to run roughshod over their midwestern rivals. Nebraska claimed three league titles and four Big XII Tournament titles from 1996-2000 while also showing themselves to be a threat in the NCAA Tournament, only being denied a spot in the 1999 College Cup after a penalty shootout defeat to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
While the Huskers’ title winning days faded from view after the beginning of the new millennium, Nebraska was still a consistent performer in the NCAA Tournament, extending their streak of qualifying for the Big Dance to ten straight seasons through 2005 and could boast an Elite Eight appearance and five Sweet Sixteens to their name in that run. Things took a turn for the worse in the second half of the decade though. Nebraska saw their at-large bubble burst in 2006 after a sixth place finish in the league, ending their decade long NCAA Tournament streak. It would get much, much worse for Nebraska the following season as the bottom fell out for the program.
An abysmal 5-10-4 campaign saw Nebraska finish rock bottom of the Big XII in what was undoubtedly the worst season in program history. Forget it being the first losing season in program history, it was also the first time the Huskers hadn’t won at least ten matches in the history of their program. It’s been a mixed bag for Walker and his side since. The double digit win season streak was renewed with three such seasons in a row, and Nebraska shot back into the top half of the Big XII, but a return to the NCAA Tournament hasn’t been in the cards. NU hadn’t been close RPI-wise in either 2008 or 2009, and the pressure surely was rising on Walker to deliver improvement in Lincoln as the team bid farewell to the Big XII in 2010.
It was hardly the farewell the club could’ve wanted though, as the Huskers proved to be devastating on offense and inept on defense en route to some eye-popping wins and losses. Always right on the cutline as far as the bubble for the NCAA Tournament was concerned, Nebraska looked to be in great shape as they led Oklahoma State in the Big XII Tournament semi-finals but blew their lead and would be left out of the field of sixty-four come Selection Monday.
Hoping the change in conference would do them some good, Nebraska so nearly opened up 2011 with a major shock, pushing North Carolina to the limit in a 2-1 defeat in Lincoln. A draw with Baylor also ended up being a fine result come the end of the season, though a loss at Denver was less encouraging. The club racked up a few easy wins before picking up a massive win on the road, beating ACC side Virginia Tech, in a 4-3 shootout. They also pushed national semi-finalists Wake Forest on the same weekend, showing this Huskers side could hang with just about anyone on their day. Life in the Big Ten started out well with two convincing wins in a row to begin league play, but the club would hit the skids in a bad way after, losing their next five, including defeats to Indiana and Michigan that were crushing for their postseason hopes.
Upsets over Ohio State and Iowa kept Nebraska’s head above water, but Nebraska needed results in a bad way in their final two matches. They weren’t coming. After dropping a 3-1 result to Illinois, Nebraska was eliminated from postseason contention in the season finale, a typical 6-3 defeat to Minnesota that spoke to both the Huskers’ charms and their fatal flaws. Keep in mind, this is a club that scored four goals against league champions Penn State, only to lose after conceding five. In any event, Nebraska finished in an unimpressive tenth in the league, compiling a losing record for the first time since 2007.
To that note, the Huskers also dropped in the RPI after three straight seasons of improvement. Walker certainly is owed a lot for bringing plenty of silverware to Lincoln and building the program, but given the program’s dearth of success on the national level for some time now, one has to wonder if time isn’t running out on the long-tenured coach.
If Walker wasn’t sweating before, he probably is now after the shocking offseason departure of the club’s offensive juggernaut, Morgan Marlborough. Marlborough was on a pace to destroy the Nebraska offensive record books and would have almost been a certainty to break school records for points, goals, hat-tricks, and multiple goal games among other marks in Huskers lore. Some of Marlborough’s statements on her way out to Santa Clara were telling though, as you could seemingly infer a belief that Nebraska wasn’t going to be in a position to win trophies or advance a possible professional or international career. Considering Marlborough wasn’t granted a waiver to be immediately eligible, you might also infer it wasn’t a happy parting.
The departure leaves Nebraska in a real spot of bother. This was a club that got twenty goals from their lead gun last season and still finished well short of the postseason places in the Big Ten, which should give you an indication of how bad the defense was. It’s quite a feat to tie for the second best offense in the league AND the third worst defense, so Nebraska was exciting if nothing else. But excitement can only satiate the masses for so long, especially at a program that had once been as successful as Nebraska.
Though there is mass upheaval at essentially every position for Nebraska, they should make it through relatively unscathed in between the pipes. After splitting time in 2010, junior Emma Stevens took over for good last year, starting every match for the Huskers and playing almost every minute in goal for the club. As you might expect for a keeper on such a a bad club defensively, it’s been a bit of a trial by fire these past two seasons for Stevens, and she’ll be hoping desperately for a bit more support from the backline in front of her this year. There’s little depth to speak of, with sophomore Amy Swearer the club’s only backup. She’s played less than ten minutes in two seasons, so expect Stevens to take most or all of the minutes in goal again this year.
You might think that a little renewal and freshening up of the ranks is all that might be needed for the Huskers’ defense to shake off its woeful form over the past few seasons. But losing a giant chunk of last season’s starting unit while also presiding over a unit with questionable depth doesn’t exactly seem like the ticket to success for Nebraska. Blair Slapper was one of the few true defenders on the club last season, having moved into the starting lineup full-time in 2009 as a sophomore. Willing and able to dish out assists, as six in 2009 showed, Slapper started every match again last season as a member of Nebraska’s beleaguered defensive unit.
Also gone is Michaella Fulmer, who had been one of the club’s best sparks off the bench in 2008 and 2009, with four goals and three assists in each season. Fulmer tore her ACL before the 2010 season though and ended up coming back last year after a medical redshirt. She came back in a much different role, ending up filling in at defense, where she started every game for the Cornhuskers as a fifth-year senior. Katie Goetzmann, who played extensively in the midfield but also saw time in defense, can also be counted among the losses in this hard hit group.
So what’s coming back? Well, not much. Junior Maritza Hayes is likely the most vetted options, having been a starter for all of her first two years at the club. Hayes even got involved a little offensively last season, with a pair of assists to her name as a sophomore. Given how thin and young the rest of the defense looks, she may have to play a big role in leading by example for UN to succeed this season. Likely alongside her will be classmate Ari Romero, who also has experience in the midfield but will be almost certainly deployed in defense given the numbers crunch this year.
There’s a rather onerous problem for Nebraska, at least at the beginning of the season, with Romero though. She’ll likely be part of the Mexican U20 contingent at the U20 World Cup, meaning an absence for the first month of the season and some big worries for Walker in defense. Another junior, Bri Badje, saw action off the bench in defense in each game last season and is a likely candidate to step up into a full-time role given her experience. After that? It won’t be easy. The rest of the returnees were squad players last year, and the rookies don’t look especially accomplished for this level. It adds up to the status quo again in Lincoln: more dicey defending and some serious heartburn for Cornhusker fans.
Goetzmann’s a big loss, not just because of her fourteen career assists, but also because she brought three years of starting experience to a club that so desperately seems to be in need of some this year. Goetzmann was also a versatile option for Nebraska, able to function in midfield or defense in her tenure in Lincoln. Also departing is former U.S. U23 international Molly Thomas, a steady producer of offense for much of her stay with the club, including an eight goal, seven assist performance in 2009. With all the options elsewhere last year, Thomas was more of a table setter than anything else, not scoring but coming through with six assists for the club, including five in a four game stretch in the middle of the year.
This group looks bereft of experienced returning options coming into 2012. Sophomore Caroline Gray is the relative veteran head, having started every game as a rookie last year. Gray wasn’t one of the club’s highly touted recruits last season but ended up being one of its most successful ones as a rookie however, establishing herself as a lineup mainstay. She provided little offensive thrust though, with just one goal and one assist, and beyond her, it’s difficult to see where the offense is going to come from with this group. Classmate Samantha Areman was one of the club’s top reserves last season, playing in all but two games for the Huskers and may be needed in a bigger role out of necessity more than anything else.
Depth is shaky to say the least, and rookies may be needed to plug gaps. The club might do well to fast track freshman Emily Taylor into the lineup. Arguably this season’s top UN recruit, Taylor has been impressive in ECNL action for Challenge SC over the years and may add some much needed punch to a midfield unit that could otherwise struggle.
Replace Marlborough? Good luck with that. The departed striker may have been a relentlessly high volume shooter, but she also hit the target with frightening regularity, never going without a goal for more than two games last year. Marlborough also was never held without a shot on goal in any of her eighteen starts in 2011. Oh, and she also managed to score fifteen goals in a seven game span in the first half of last season. There’s no replacing a player like Marlborough, it’s just a matter of trying to lose as little of that production as possible. Depth-wise, the club also loses sophomore Maddie Hanssler, who barely played as a rookie but ended up being a solid reserve last season who also made three starts and scored two goals.
Depth should be less of an issue than at other positions though. The new leading light for this unit is likely senior Jordan Jackson, who’s not such a bad goal getter herself. Though she didn’t quite match the pace of 2010′s electric twelve goal, nine assist performance, she still managed eight goals and six assists in a solid junior season. Jackson did a whole lot of that scoring out of conference though, only notching two goals in the club’s last twelve games. She still managed goals against North Carolina and Virginia Tech though, so the quality is definitely there, even if the consistency wasn’t what was ultimately desired. Jackson will probably get the brunt of the attention from opposing defenses, and it remains to be seen how she responds without Marlborough in tow.
Junior Stacy Bartels has shown rapid growth in her seasons in Lincoln and looks a legit second option in attack now after a seven goal season in 2011. Bartels was another who slumped through portions of Big Ten season but did score a brace against Minnesota in the finale and could hit ten goals or more with the increased looks likely to come her way this year. The likeliest of the other returnees to join the starting group is sophomore Mayme Conroy, who didn’t quite match expectations of her coming into Lincoln after a strong prep career. As one of the team’s top reserves last season, Conroy saw plenty of the field, but she only netted once, a mark that obviously has to improve if she’s to take her place as a starter in the attack.
Walker certainly hasn’t missed with too many of his forward recruits recently and will be hoping for similar results this year with newbies Amanda Elertson and Alex Massey. Both were regional ODP participants and should have a chance to crack the rotation at the very least this year with the general lack of depth. Losing Marlborough definitely hurts, but this group still looks like the strength of the club by far.
Well, Nebraska should still be able to score goals with regularity this season with Jackson and Bartels coming back, but the offense still seems like it’s going to take an inevitable step back without Marlborough leading the charge. That’s not good news with the defense looking like it still probably won’t be able to stop anybody after personnel losses to graduation and the likely unavailability of Romero for the first month of the season due to international duty.
What’s worse is that the club looks woefully short of depth, with just fourteen returnees, with many of those being squad players thus far in Lincoln. Unless some of the rookies turn out to be big finds immediately, the Huskers look like struggling to make the postseason again in the Big Ten this year. And that likely means more questions over Walker’s reign in Lincoln come the end of the season.