It’s a long way from Gold Coast, Australia, to Omaha, Nebraska. It takes about 26 hours by plane to traverse the nearly 8,500 miles between the two cities. It’s a journey that Sophie Johnston, a freshman guard for the University of Nebraska Omaha women’s basketball team, made last year.
She’d never been to America, let alone made a campus visit before taking off from Australia. A few video chats with head coach Brittany Lange and some internet searches were all Johnston had. Nonetheless, Johnston said goodbye to her family at the airport and, sight unseen, headed off to Nebraska. “I really liked the feel, and my connection with the coaches was awesome,” Johnston said. “I just trusted my instincts.”
A friend of Johnston’s who lives in Denver put her game film on social media. That’s how the Omaha coaching staff got wind of the talented Aussie. But having never met her in person, it was a big leap of faith for Lange also.
“Sometimes, in the profession, it happens,” Lange said. “And we have to make sure that we really do our research.”
So, Johnston arrived in Omaha, bags in hand, ready for the court. She soon discovered that the physical distance was only the beginning of the journey.
Gold Coast, as its name implies, is a coastal city in the eastern Australian state of Queensland. Its sunny, subtropical climate makes it a major tourist destination, rife with beaches, surfing spots, nightlife, and theme parks.
Omaha is not without its attractions but certainly falls short of being a subtropical tourist destination. For Johnston, Omaha’s climate was one of the first things to which she was introduced. On Oct. 14, 2018, Omaha saw its first snow of the season.
“I had actually never seen snow before,” Johnston said. “Definitely the climate change is a lot to adjust to.”
With so much similarity between Australian and American culture, the big things fell into place easily for Johnston upon arrival. However, some of the seemingly small things took some getting used to.
“The biggest challenge for me was the food,” Johnston said. “The portions over here are so much bigger than what they are back home.”
On the court, there wasn’t much time for adjustment. Johnston was immediately thrust into the lineup. The foreign-born player who’d never seen the campus was a starter in game one. “It is rare,” said Lange. “We knew with some of the injuries from last year we were going to have to fill those holes with the recruiting class.”
In that first game, Johnson went 5-10 from the field for 11 points and grabbed six rebounds. Omaha won the game 96-69 to start the season 1-0 for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
Not every game has been quite as outstanding as that first outing, and Johnston has learned a few things. “I find over here the defense is just incredible,” she said. “All teams, they’re just so fast, strong, and athletic.”
Rayanna Carter leads Omaha with six points in the opening period while Sophie Johnston has five. pic.twitter.com/Wyvhagg2ZN
— Omaha WBB (@OmahaWBB) January 20, 2019
Lange has been encouraged by what she’s seen out of the young Aussie. “I think she’s better with every game,” Lange said. “She’s got a great motor, and probably ahead of the curve there from what we anticipated.”
Johnston has started each of the first 18 games this season, averaging nearly six points and three rebounds per contest. She says she hasn’t looked back and there’s been little trouble fitting in.
“Our team chemistry on and off the court has been amazing,” Johnston said. “We’re all so close.”
Johnston has come a long way. Though she’s got plenty left in front of her, it seems the future is bright for the youngster from Gold Coast. If it’s only half as bright as the sunshine on Mermaid Beach, Johnston and the Mavericks will be just fine.