We’ve all seen the t-shirts before: “Random Company Name: Established 1984.” Whether it’s your favorite MLB team, soccer club, or local clothing boutique, it feels like almost every place you go has something along those lines for sale.
On a sun drenched May morning, standing near midfield at Caniglia Field on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, coach Jason Mims’ shirt reads, “UNO Men’s Soccer - Established 2011.”
Not exactly an eternity by your typical t-shirt standards.
While the history may not be lengthy, the rapid rise of UNO Soccer is hard to ignore. In just four short years under Mims’ guidance, the team has gone from a one win campaign in their first season to the program’s first top 25 ranking in 2015.
“We had a lot of firsts for the program this year,” said Mims. “Our first year eligible for the postseason, our first year in the top 25, our first player drafted in Major League Soccer (MLS), we had a South Omaha Classic game and continued to grow it with our first year at Caniglia Field instead of South Omaha and it was a big success. There were a lot of firsts, and overall we’re pretty happy.”
While younger players are experiencing success soon after arriving on campus, many of the upperclassman have endured four years without the potential of postseason play as UNO transitioned to full D-1 membership.
“I think the first couple of years guys just were excited to play and compete, and when the season was over, the season was over” said Mims.
“But as we got good, I think guys started to understand OK, this is how college soccer works. This is how the postseason works. This is how the NCAA tournament works. Over the last couple of years it probably been a little more difficult as guys started to understand we’re better than some of these teams that are getting in the postseason, whereas the first two of three years we weren’t better than them. So the last couple of years it was a little bit of a challenge, but now we’re good (being eligible for postseason play).”
While the program experienced new highs in 2015, Mims isn’t surprised. It was all part of the plan, way back in the day in 2011.
“We had to start from basically nothing. I had never lost that much in my life,” says Mims. “I never accepted it. But you learn how to lose and be better.”
“Losing motivates you even more, but we did it the right way. We could have gone for short term success, and probably took some chances on kids with transfers or international players or junior college kids, but maybe you don’t know those kids quite as well. We went with the long term plan and took local kids from Omaha, and Midwestern kids and have slowly built this thing up from one win, to five wins, to nine wins, to ten wins, so I think we’ve gone up and up and up, and it’s been great. It’s been challenging, but its been great, and now I feel like we’ve made it.”
Strong recruiting is obviously one of the keys to UNO’s meteoric rise, but there was a very specific type of athlete the Mavericks wanted to build the program around.
“We tend to like Midwestern kids and local kids,” said Mims. “That’s kind of what our program is built around. Omaha kids, Midwestern kids sprinkled in with some international players and kids from around the country.”
Mims says he likes how players from the Midwest perform on the pitch.
“They’ve usually got a little bit of an edge to them, usually blue collar…I grew up recruiting those kind of players and I like that area…The good news is more kids are playing soccer, so there are good players all around the country, and theres not much that separates them.”
Mims said one new challenges facing all of college soccer is the growth of professional opportunities for young players. As MLS and professional academies continue to grow, some elite players are moving right from high school to professional teams. It has crated a trickle down effect on recruiting across the country.
The NCAA also has provisions for what Mims calls a “gap year,” in which athletes can play for a professional club for a year and still maintain their collegiate eligibility as long as they are only compensated in certain ways. It’s another obstacle in recruiting that college coaches are now having to navigate.
One advantage UNO certainly has is a top-notch competition facility. The recently renovated Caniglia Field is one of the top collegiate venues in the country.
While many schools are forced to play in public parks or share massive football stadiums, UNO has the luxury of a recently redesigned venue made specifically for soccer. The artificial playing surface is filled with organic material comprised of mostly cork, coconut, and sand instead of the traditional crushed tires found on many fields.
Combined with a padded layer under the artificial grass to help ease wear on the body and reduce the risk of concussions, and a zero degree crown, Mims says not a match goes by where opposing players and coaches aren’t impressed.
While the Mavs have enjoyed immense success by almost any measure in their first four years, Mims knows the ultimate goal is still looming: win the Summit League crown and get UNO into the NCAA tournament. Given their rapid improvement and the success of other area teams (Creighton was ranked #1 for a portion of 2015), it isn’t hard to fathom that goal being reachable soon.
With that in mind, Mims decided to once again step up the competition level for the upcoming season. The fall schedule features matches against Creighton, Stanford, UConn, Cal, DePaul, and host of other national powers.
LINK: Schedule http://www.omavs.com/SportSelect.dbml?SPSID=795044&SPID=135116&Q_SEASON=2016
Speaking of the schedule, changes by the NCAA could soon be coming that would benefit schools in the north like UNO. One of the topics being discussed is playing a full year round schedule, with the championship tournament coming in the spring. It’s a change Mims would very much like to see.
If the change is made, competition would start in September and run through November, with a break over the winter. Games would resume in the spring with the tournament to follow. It’s easy to understand how this would benefit teams in colder climates.
The rise of the Mavericks program is evident, and the future looks even brighter. Perhaps the next sun-drenched May afternoon spent with Jason Mims on Caniglia Field will find him wearing a new t-shirt, one reading, “UNO Men’s Soccer - Established 2011. Summit League Champions - 2016.”