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As a rainbow peeked its way through Friday’s pelting rain that felt more like sleet, Nebraska Head Soccer Coach John Walker stood from afar and watched six seniors, plus all their teammates and families, celebrate like they’d just won something big, like in Big … really, really BIG … so B1G that the entire Big Ten, the oldest intercollegiate athletic conference in the country, could feel the reverberating effect of a one-time soccer power returning to the roots that Walker helped plant two decades ago.
The Huskers got a goal from a freshman forward, another from a junior forward and the last game-clinching goal from, of all people, a senior goal-keeper to turn back Indiana, 3-1 Friday. The victory means the Huskers don’t have to wait to see if Michigan loses Saturday because if the Wolverines win, they can no longer catch the 10-1 Big Ten champions with a 6-game winning streak. We congratulated Walker, a quiet, caring, humble man who very respectfully declined to be interviewed. “It’s all about these girls,” he told me while watching them celebrate. “I want to see it all soak in. They won it.”
Yes the Huskers did win, but we have a news flash buried in the third paragraph of this championship story. A senior-led team that also has one of the best freshman players in collegiate soccer cried and hugged and smiled and laughed to their hearts content, but their collective celebration couldn’t disguise why they were so jubilant.
Players, Assistants Wanted to Win for Walker
This historic Big Ten trophy which Penn State had won for 15 consecutive seasons will live in Lincoln, and with that, we have an announcement to make: This B1G trophy is for you, John Walker! Your heart, faith, resilience and love for your players and assistant coaches is coming right back at you on this meaningfully memorable Friday.
This is the 11th Walker-coached Nebraska soccer team that will make the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how the Huskers fare in next weekend’s Big Ten Soccer Tournament in Champaign, Ill. Walker also has guided two Husker teams to the Elite Eight and six to the Sweet 16. His Nebraska teams had even won eight conference championships before Friday, but this was his first regular-season title since 2000. That’s why his players and coaches wanted to win this one for Walker.
“This means the world to me. I’m crying right now because I’ve spent five years with Coach Walker,” senior forward Jordan Jackson said. “I know he’s won all those Big 12 titles, but this Big Ten championship is for him because he’s the one who lifts us all up. The heart I have on the field comes from him. To me, that’s what this was all about. I think he knows that. He just doesn’t want the attention. Penn State has owned this trophy for 15 years and after we beat them, we had a different mentality.”
Summer, Fall Huddles Ended with Same Chant
The Huskers took on their championship mindset last summer, ending every voluntary workout in a huddle of hands and the same three words – Big Ten Championship! That mantra ended every Nebraska practice and every Husker game this fall. The positively charged mindset was sincere, even though it meant that Nebraska would have to go from a ninth-place conference finish in 2012 to the top of the heap in 2013. Jackson knew the Huskers had to take one step at a time, not an escalator to the top, so that daily process became the fuel for their fire, and they stoked that fire every day.
The spark plug for major parts of that gigantic improvement came from freshman forward Jaycie Johnson, a recruit from metropolitan Kansas City, just like Jordan Jackson. They’re the scoring leaders on this Big Ten Championship team. Jaycie, the freshman, has 10 goals and two assists. Jordan, the senior, has eight goals and seven assists. One had a profound recruiting effect on the other but both signed a national letter with Nebraska for one primary reason – because John Walker was the head coach.
“I came to Nebraska because of Coach Walker,” said Johnson, who scored another Husker goal Friday, along with Mayme Conroy and Emma Stevens, the goalkeeper. “He just treats everyone like you’re his own daughter. He always makes such an individual effort to help you. For me, that’s what I wanted – to be comfortable with a coach that can really help you improve every day. He gives every player he coaches all the input you ever need.”
Assistants See Emotion in Each Player’s Face
Walker’s two assistants – Marty Everding, in his 17th season, and Peter Underwood, in his first season, also prefer championships from afar. “It’s like being at a wedding,” Everding said. “I just enjoy the scenery and watching all these kids have so much fun celebrating. They’ve worked hard. It’s delightful for them. They’ve earned it.”
For Underwood, winning wasn’t necessarily the highlight. “It’s tough to put in words,” he said. “Just look at the emotion on the faces of every girl out there. I couldn’t be happier for them. This is a fantastic team. I couldn’t be happier for John either because he’s a phenomenal coach. He’s put so much into it. He cares about every single one of these girls and his entire staff. He’s one guy that everyone really wants to work hard for.”
Soccer is in its first year of reporting to Steve Waterfield, Nebraska’s Senior Associate Athletic Director who joined the Huskers’ administrative staff in August. “This is a special moment for the girls,” he said. “To go from ninth in the conference one year and then win the championship the next is hard. John’s a great coach and a great leader, and I just think it’s great when good things happen to good people.”
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Voices from Husker Nation
We’ve been following the Husker soccer team all season. What an accomplishment to win the Big Ten Trophy. This is quite a story to finish 9th last year and 1st this year … something all Huskers can be proud of. Congratulations to all players and coaches and good luck in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Doug & Lisa Roseland, Altamonte Springs, Florida