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Beyond their years: Yochum's and Jackson’s play, friendship make strides in freshman season

OSU vs. TCU

Referee and Cowgirls surround Ally Jackson helping Grace Yochum up from the ground during the match against TCU on Oct. 25, 2018.

Hyped up

With the early afternoon sun too high in the sky, Neal Patterson Stadium was able to cast enough shade to cover only the near sideline.

It left the playing field fully exposed, baking players in the 90-plus degree August heat.

But after 102 minutes, every Cowgirl rushed out into the sun.

White jerseys and pink pinnies quickly swarmed Marlo Zoller after she scored a walk-off winner to beat No. 5 Florida in double overtime. Freshman Grace Yochum, who notched 75 minutes on the day, was one of the first to reach to her.

After celebrating with her teammates, Yochum broke off from the mob, taking a few steps toward the stands.

Amped up with adrenaline, she looked up into the crowd and yelled in excitement, intensely pumping her fists through the air a few times.

Similar emotion surfaced after each of her four goals this season. Often, after a player scores, she'll run over and leap up well above the heads of her rejoicing teammates. As a star basketball player in high school, she carried that same type of intensity on the court.

These fiery celebrations have become a trademark of Yochum in her freshman year.

Her passion pops.

“I’ve always been like that,” Yochum said. “I’d say that’s what sets me apart.

“I get really emotional and really hyped. I think if people see that, hopefully my goal is to help them get more excited.”

Yochum has quickly made a name for herself with the immediate impact she’s had for the Cowgirls. OSU coach Colin Carmichael said Yochum came in playing like a junior though it was her first season.

Her poise and energy show in her leadership ability as well.

At practices and in games, the primary voices heard are often those of more experienced players, but it’s always been natural for Yochum to be vocal.

As the season has moved along, she has grown into a bigger leadership role on the team and become more comfortable and established.

“Freshman year is different because you’re the little one, and obviously no one’s going to listen to you if you yell at them,” Yochum said. “But the girls on this team have really encouraged me to get more vocal and definitely the coaching staff.”

On the field, Yochum is smooth yet flashy.

She often finds herself in the thick of the action, using her tall frame to physically battle with opponents for possession or taking advantage of her athleticism to jump for acrobatic header attempts. Yochum displays an uncommon level of confidence for a freshman, unafraid to wind up from well outside the box out if she sees an opportunity.

If the game doesn’t go her way, her competitiveness again bubbles to the surface. Slapping her legs in frustration after hooking a kick just wide. Grabbing at the net in annoyance after narrowly mistiming a header.

She doesn’t dwell on the miscues, quickly refocusing on the game.

Inheriting graduated Anna Beffer's role in the midfield, she has taken on a lot of responsibility for a young player.

And she’s passed with flying colors every step of the way.

“Grace, from day one, you could tell she was going to make an impact,” Carmichael said. “She’s done great. Every time we’ve challenged her, she’s stepped up.”

Staying ready

Freshman Ally Jackson stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the players on the sideline, a couple feet behind the white line.

Sporting a colorful pinnie over her jersey, she looked on, her eyes chasing the action on the field in front of her. She could hear the crowd from behind, but more importantly, she waited patiently to hear Carmichael call her name.

Jackson didn’t immediately emerge as a starter like Yochum. Her progression was a bit slower, coming off the bench in the midfield for the first nine matches of the season.

Then starting defender Elise Hawn got injured the weekend before conference play.

Her eyes lit up when Carmichael told her she would start against Kansas State.

Although she was thrown into the fire in her first start, a hostile road environment against a Big 12 opponent at a position she hadn’t played all season, it was a breakout performance for her.

“We needed somebody to step up in the back, so we gave her a chance,” Carmichael said. “In the game, she played great. I thought she was solid, she was composed. If she was nervous you never would’ve known it.”

Jackson was nervous.

But she didn’t let it show. She just saw the opportunity in front of her and ran with it.

She has since become a regular in the starting lineup.

In contrast to Yochum’s intensity, Jackson’s composure stands out.

Even as she has become a more key player, she still gets anxious when she’s out on the field. But it doesn’t reflect in her play.

She too, looks like she has been there for years. Carmichael compared Jackson’s calming presence to that of sophomore Kim Rodriguez, whose staggering level of poise is her defining trait.

“I’m still a little nervous every time I go out there because I just want to make sure I do good,” Jackson said. “But I feel like just by getting more starts, my confidence just builds and builds.”

This collectedness about herself allows her to fly under the radar in multiple ways. Her play and contributions on the field are often subtle.

Probably her most memorable single moment was one that didn’t count.

Jackson appeared to put in a golden goal with only a minute left against No. 6 Texas, though officials waived off the score.

But Jackson’s versatility has been invaluable to the Cowgirls this year.

Mostly out of necessity, she had minutes at nearly every spot in OSU’s 3-4-3 formation. She moved from her natural position in the midfield to the back line because of injuries. When the Cowgirls needed a spark up front against Iowa State, Carmichael looked to Jackson to play forward.

She admitted it’s been tough to hop among different responsibilities at every position, but no matter where she is on the field, she competes.

“When things didn’t go her way early, she didn’t pout,” Carmichael said. “She didn’t whine. She just rolled up her sleeves and got on with it. I wish more players would do that.

“She just kept working, and credit to the kid. It’s paid off.”

A growing bond

Yochum was weird, and Jackson was too nice.

Their pair’s first impression of each other wasn’t entirely promising when they arrived for preseason camp in July.

But in their short time in Stillwater, they’ve quickly become best friends.

They’re together most of the time they aren’t on the field or in class. Along with fellow freshman Anna Lawler, who is their close friend, they bond over food. They love to find places to eat on campus or in town.

Sometimes it’s tough with Jackson, a picky eater, but they manage.

Without a lot to do in Stillwater, not exactly a bustling metropolis, they’ve been forced to create fun, and it’s brought them closer in the process. Together, they have a good time doing nothing.

“We hang out and go wherever,” Yochum said. “We really don’t do much … there’s nothing to do. It's Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“But we love it.”

At times, it seemed as if the summer would never end for the two freshmen.

They quickly discovered the struggles of the day in, day out grind of their first preseason camp.

Still getting comfortable in a new environment, Yochum was more outgoing from the jump. Jackson took a little more time to break out of her shell. It became known that both players had a little fire in them, fully capable of taking some heat and dishing it right back.

As the days went along, they began to feel the workload weighing on them. Both of them brushed off suggestions that the year would fly by.

But now, faster than they could blink, it’s done.

After a strong start to the season, the Cowgirls hit a slump in conference play as injuries started to pile up. They were unable to defend their Big 12 title.

OSU’s two top scorers from this season graduate in the spring, leaving some uncertainty moving forward.

But with players like Yochum and Jackson, along with some other promising young prospects, Carmichael said he believes the program is in good hands.

“There was high expectations,” Carmichael said. “But you never really know until they get here. Neither one of them was overwhelmed. They just came into the Big 12 and competed.

“Both of them moving forward I think are going to be a very good part of our program.”

Their differences complement each other.

Jackson is a self-proclaimed crybaby, and Yochum is the more stable one of the duo.

Although Yochum is the rock in their friendship, she does her fair share of messing around. She tells a lot of jokes, mostly bad ones.

Maybe too many.

But Jackson keeps laughing.

sports.ed@ocolly.com