Two meetings changed Jaci Jones’ perspective on her soccer career.
The first of them happened at the end of the 2016 season, Jones’ collegiate debut. A respectable return of five goals and four assists in which the Oklahoma State soccer team made the first round of the NCAA tournament set Jones up as a future starter for the Cowgirls.
Jones showed up to coach Colin Carmichael’s office for her individual end of season meeting. A native of Mustang, Oklahoma, Jones grew up watching OSU athletics whenever her father, Sean, took her and the rest of the family to Stillwater, sometimes twice a week. Not surprisingly, going to OSU was always a part of her dream and plan.
But along the way, there was one huddle she couldn’t overcome: having a confident conversation with Carmichael.
“I have talked to Colin before whenever they were interested in me when I was little and I went to soccer camps and stuff,” Jones said. “That was like, ‘Oh, it’s so cool, he is the OSU soccer coach.” Whenever I was like the one who he is looking at and being recruited by him, I was like super quiet and I didn’t say anything. Whenever he asked the question, I was always, “No, no and no.”’
In that meeting inside Carmichael’s office, the “No, no and no” response wasn’t an available option. There, Jones felt like she was having an honest conversation with her coach for the first time. Or more concisely, she was having an honest conversation with herself.
“I felt that after that meeting I opened up,” Jones said. “I told them basically how I feel like, ‘You know, I don’t think I have the best attitude throughout the fall.” They were the same with me. They opened up with me and talked with me about being captain for next year. I think it was not me that I had proven myself. I showed them like who I was.”
Looking back, Jones said she felt her lack of confidence to speak up and be herself was her biggest shortcoming in her first year.
“I kind of regret that like honestly, my freshman year I don’t really feel like I said everything that I needed to say,” Jones said. “I feel like I need to apologize to my coach because I feel like I wasn’t the player I could have been in my freshman year because I was so timid and shy and I’m a perfectionist in some extents. I wanted to think I was perfect and I was like trying to figure out what they want out of me rather than being myself.”
If that one-on-one meeting changed Jones’s perspective about herself, the second meeting shaped the way Jones would adapt for the rest of her collegiate career.
It was the end of the Spring 2017 season. Carmichael called Jones, Julia Leinhart, Anna Beffer, Haley Woodard and others to a meeting.
There, Carmichael announced he was going to create a team leadership group, with every player in that room selected for such committee.
“We felt like there is a disconnect on some levels between the coaching staff and the players and it is a communication issue,” Carmichael said. “So we created a leadership group and Jaci was a part of it. We tried to have representatives from different classes because there is a disconnection between players as well. You have seniors who are about to graduate and new freshman come in who haven’t been in it. We thought this is a way to get everybody’s voice heard without having to talk to all 28 players into it.”
Carmichael said he already knew the last thing Jones needed as a freshman was to be put into a spotlight, but he saw a promising leadership skill inside of his shy, talented player.
“When we recruited Jaci, obviously we recruited a good player,” Carmichael said. “She is fit, she works hard, she is passionate and you can tell she loves soccer. It was interesting because I told her there would be some blow black, there would be some seniors or juniors going down looking at you like, “Who are you to tell me what to do”. You have to get some big personalities to go with that and to her great credit, she says she is going to do it.”
“She grabs it and she hasn’t gone back. She has been a huge part to get the program in such a better place now on and off the field.”
At this point, Jones said she had felt more chemistry with the coaching staff, but Carmichael’s announcement still caught her off-guard.
“I was really surprised. I remembered calling my dad and I be like, ‘Dad, Colin asked me if I think I could be the captain next year,” and I was shocked.”
Two meetings, two perspectives changed.
There were also two new lessons and responsibilities with being a captain, too.
Carmichael said he created the leadership group because he wanted all the players to understand and have more respect for the coaching staff's decisions. The coaches want to win and the players want to play, and there needed to be a middle ground. That was the part where Jones and the rest of the leadership group came in, to maintain the squad's harmony.
Being the intermediaries meant Jones had to take a step back to see things through the decision-maker’s perspective, instead of letting her player persona take over.
“I just had to change my perspective and saw the thing through their shoes,” Jones said. “Instead of thinking like, ‘I don’t know why he is doing this or why they said this. I kind of thought like “If I was in his position, what would I do. Maybe you don’t agree with it but you understand why they are doing it.”
The second responsibility was to prove herself worthy enough of the captain’s armband.
Jones jokingly lists herself as five-feet-three-and-a-half. She certainly isn’t the tallest or the most athletic player on the pitch, but she doesn’t let it become a burden.
“Just because your size is small, your personality doesn’t have to be,” Jones said. “I think the things that you do on and off-the-field, it speaks for themselves. You kind of lead by example whether you're six-feet tall or five-feet tall.”
Carmichael said Jones’ biggest quality wasn’t her fighting spirit, which was showcased through her desire to win every battle despite her physical disadvantage. It is common to see Jones, playing as the left forward, drifting into the middle trying to regain possession or shield the ball against a much taller opponent.
Carmichael said Jones' biggest weapon is the fact she is playing her favorite sport for her dream school, and all she needed was an ideal environment to show the true version of herself. That version now is willing to speak up to her coach and doesn’t shy away from telling her teammates what to do.
“I just think she loves what she is doing,” Carmichael said. “She clearly loves OSU and she loves to compete and she is confident. All those things you see that grows from a talented, quiet and humble little freshman to outgoing, confident, vocal kids you see on the field now, that’s cool.”
After an up-and-down freshman year, Jones answered the doubt in style. As one of the team captains, Jones lifted the 2017 Big 12 conference title with her teammates after a conference-clinching victory against Texas. Jones said she felt like it was the turning point of the program.
“I think it was because our whole attitude changed as a team,” Jones said. “The problem and issues in my freshman year, it was all gone. Now, we can start off fresh and forget about everything happening in the past and use it to learn, like that was not the team we want to be.”
Things didn’t go to plan this past season, though.
A plethora of injuries depleted the Cowgirls’ roster to a point that the team lost as many as 11 players. Jones was also a victim when she suffered a concussion against Texas that ruled her out for two games, and she was required to play the remaining matches with headgear on. The Cowgirls failed to qualify for the Big 12 tournament a year after winning the conference title as a result of an injury-plagued season.
Now entering her final season, Jones said she wants to enjoy it while it lasts while making sure the team achieves its objective.
“We are going to make the Big 12, that has to happen,” Jones said. “That should always be the goal. But for me, it might be my last season so I want to do everything I can. But I am not going to treat it like, ‘Oh, this is it,’ because there is pressure for you to do well in your last season with the team. I am not going to do that because I think it is something that causes emotions. I think I have to step up, because why not me?"