Randy York's N-Sider
If you don’t know Jaycie Johnson by now, you’re missing one of Nebraska’s best athletic story lines in years. A 5-foot, 6-inch freshman from Lake Winnebago, Mo., Johnson is the freshman sparkplug of a senior-dominated Husker soccer team that’s the weekend host for four NCAA qualifers – Nebraska, Boston College, Illinois and Portland. The winner of Sunday’s match in Lincoln will move on to the Elite Eight. That’s one stop short of the Final Four and one step that Nebraska has reached twice before in its rich history of soccer.
Nebraska’s leading soccer scorer in an already storybook season that includes the Big Ten regular-season championship and the conference tournament championship, Johnson is the youngest pivotal player on the hustling team that has won a nation-leading 10 consecutive games. She also may have the biggest heart of all the Huskers who are focused in on the opportunity to do what no other Nebraska soccer team has ever done – advance to the Final Four.
Somehow, it seems only fitting that one of the nation’s best freshmen, who is also the first freshman to score four goals in an NCAA Tournament match, carved her name in the record book at the tender age of 18. Someone once said age is a case of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Well, that axiom works both ways. If Johnson ever thought she couldn’t be a leader on a team with six senior major contributors, she wouldn’t be the fifth player in NCAA Division I Tournament history to score four goals in one match. Despite being an All-Big Ten Second Team forward and a member of the 2013 Big Ten All-Tournament team, Johnson didn’t come to Nebraska to see how many individual honors she could receive.
Brothers Helped 4-Year-Old Advance Quickly
She came to Nebraska because she’s had the heart of Husker for eight straight years and after all she’s experienced as a freshman, she will have the heart of a Husker forever. Before filling in the blanks on that blanket statement, let’s go back to the roots of Jaycie Johnson. She started playing soccer when she was four years old and with three brothers five to eight years older than she is, she picked up the game faster than just about anyone you can imagine.
It didn’t take long for the energetic daughter of Joe Johnson and Suzie Bott to be noticed. Because she was willing to mix it up with her older brothers, Jaycie was out of her league before she even started competing. “My mom noticed how well I could play and signed me up when I was four,” she said. “Since I was always around soccer, I started scoring lots of goals every game. By the time I was five, I was dominating, so they decided I needed to play up and I continued to play up all the way to high school.”
A star was born, and here’s the most interesting part of the Jaycie Johnson Story: She started going to college soccer camps when she was 10 years old. “I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “I went to KU, Mizzou, Texas and Texas A&M. I wanted to go to Notre Dame, but my mom said I was too young for that.” But not too young for a three-hour ride to Lincoln. “I was 10 when I came to Lincoln for the first time, and I fell in love with Nebraska the first time I was here,” Johnson said. “I loved everything about Nebraska … the facility … the people and especially Coach (John) Walker. He teaches the game and helped me understand it, even when I was 10. I went back to Missouri a much better soccer player than I was.”
Steady Improvement Even at Grade-School Level
Improvement continued to be the annual incentive until Johnson signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Nebraska. “It’s true,” she said. “Every time I went to Lincoln, my all-around game got better, offensively, defensively, running-wise, everything. I dreamed about getting a scholarship at Nebraska when I was 10. I never won a state championship in high school, but from the time I was 10, my club team won the state championship eight years in a row.”
In a sense, Nebraska played a big part in Johnson’s contributions to those state titles because every year, Walker would take the time to explain to Johnson what she had to work on to get better. “He empowered me,” she said. “Every time I left Lincoln, I always felt my game was in my own hands. If I worked on what John recommended, I would get better. If I didn’t, it was my loss because he was always right on target about what I needed to do.
“I really liked John and everything about him,” Johnson said. “I liked the way he coached and the way he motivated people. I liked the way he worked with us on the field and the way he treated us off the field. I loved playing soccer from the time I was in fourth and fifth grade because he made soccer fun. It was all in the way he taught you and treated you. He would sit down with you and tell you what you’re excelling most in and what you need to improve most. He was so kind that I almost felt like I was his own daughter. He always gave me the input and feedback I needed and wanted.”
Nebraska Was the Ultimate Vision, Even at Age 10
Before she was a teenager, Jaycie Johnson was processing the art and the science of a major college soccer scholarship. “Nebraska had the best facilities,” she said, “but what meant the most to me was the respect they always showed to their student-athletes. It was amazing. Even at 10, 11 and 12, I was hearing how important it was to work hard on your grades. Nebraska motivated me to be that way, and I’m the same kind of person in the classroom that I am on the soccer field.”
Johnson’s parents knew early on what their daughter’s collegiate preference was. “I knew I had their support wherever I decided to go,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t feel any pressure, so I didn’t take many visits. I knew I didn’t want to go anywhere else than Nebraska. I was so sold on Lincoln, I didn’t have any desire even to look anywhere else.”
Kansas and Missouri offered scholarhips. So did Florida and USC, glamor schools but not contenders for a budding star with a Husker heart. Even Johnson’s own club coach knew what decision she would make long before the opportunity presented itself. “He told me he could see me playing at Nebraska because I was so plugged into everything Nebraska was doing when I was still in grade school,” she said. “Florida was probably my second choice, but I never wavered about Nebraska. I didn’t want to go that far. I wanted to go where my parents could come and watch me play every game.”
Jaycie Johnson’s Mom: Soccer’s Frequent Traveler
So far this season, Jaycie’s mom Suzi, a Registered Nurse, has not missed a single game. She’s been to Provo and Logan, Utah, in addition to Evanston, Champaign, West Lafayette, Madison, Minneapolis and then back to Illinois for Nebraska’s wins over Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. She’s seen all nine regular-season games in Lincoln, one exhibition and Friday was her second NCAA Tournament game she’s watched at Nebraska. Jaycie’s dad has been equally busy adjusting his schedule to see every game possible.
Even though Season One isn’t done, what’s Jaycie’s take on her freshman season?
“Nebraska is the perfect fit for me and my family!” she said. “This has been a storybook season. I had no idea coming in what might happen. I had no clue about what this team was capable of doing. We’ve done some phenomenal things. I never thought I’d be a part of something like this in my life, let alone my first season. Who would have thought I’d be so lucky to experience what we did in the Big Ten and then move on in the NCAA? It’s a great feeling to see us all come together and do what we said we’d do last summer. We all wanted the same goal, and we’ve all worked together to achieve it.”
A Scared, Terrified Freshman Grew Up in a Hurry
In the grand scheme of a splendid season, how could a freshman become such a catalyst in the lineup?
“Honestly, every senior on the team welcomed me with open arms from the first day I met them,” Johnson said. “I was scared when I got here … terrified. I didn’t know what to expect and what all of those seniors would think of me. I found out immediately. They made me feel at home and it didn’t matter to them that I was just a freshman. They treated me like a junior. They were so nice. They told me if I needed anything, they were there for me.
“They were so darn nice, they made me feel comfortable the first day I was here. I could look up to all of them because I knew I had the support of all of them – on and off the field. They’ve helped me so much on every single thing, whether it’s school-related, team-related or anything else. I knew right away I would be happy here, no matter what. Everyone has everyone else’s back. That’s why everyone on this team feels a part of what we’re doing. It’s phenomenal. I feel like I’ve known all of these seniors pretty much my whole life.”
Six Seniors Welcome the Youngest into Sisterhood
If Johnson senses a bad day, senior teammate Maritza Hayes “makes sure I have a good day,” Johnson said. “She’s been a huge part of my confidence and the leadership I’ve shown. I have so much respect for her.” Ditto for fellow Kansas City-based senior Jordan Jackson, the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year and member of the 2013 Big Ten All-Tournament Team. “I knew before I came here how close we would be,” Johnson said. “Jordan’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to come here. Every time I would see her play, I wanted to be like Jordan. She can relate to everything I’ve gone through, and she makes me feel like a senior right next to her. Age does not matter to her. She treats me like I’m her age.” The same is true of senior Ari Romero. “She’s a workhorse. She will not stop working, and that’s what I love most about Ari,” Jaycie said. “She makes me want to work hard, too. She gives everything she has in every practice and every game. She’s a little stick of dynamite, that’s what she is. She just goes and goes and goes and sets the tone for the rest of us to go all out. That’s why she’s on the Mexican National Team. Someday, if I work as hard as she does, I want to make the USA National Team.”
Johnson has equal respect for the Huskers’ other three seniors – Stacy Bartels, Kylie Greischar and Emma Stevens. “This is a team and every senior plays a big part,” Johnson said. “Ari may set the tone, but every senior we have buys into our overall communication, our energy and our organization. That’s what builds this team’s trust. We all try to play smart and be competitive. We may not be the biggest team, but we will be more organized; we will communicate more; and we will have more heart.”
Especially the heart of a Husker freshman who was anointed quickly into Nebraska’s leadership camp and has made the most of that role in conjunction with a head coach and two assistants who have empowered six remarkable seniors and everyone else. “I can’t put into words what all six of our seniors have meant to this team,” Johnson said. “They expect the best from themselves and everyone around them. I have never played on a team with so much chemistry.”
Yes, Jaycie Concludes, She is One Lucky Girl
“This place truly is amazing, from the coaches to the players to the facilities,” Johnson said. “I’m proud to be from Kansas City and even prouder to play at Nebraska. When people would ask me where I was going to college, I would tell them Nebraska, and almost everyone would say ‘You’re one lucky girl to go to a place like that.’ Honestly, I’ve always known that. I even knew it when I was 10 years old and it was my first time in Lincoln. This place is special. It’s perfect. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
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