By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In a way, Grace Jackson’s Vanderbilt career began much earlier than most of her Vanderbilt soccer teammates. Jackson’s father, Hardie, was a letterwinner on the Commodores’ baseball team from 1984-85, cultivating a family history that lent itself to black and gold. Those childhood memories still resonate for the younger Jackson.
“I would definitely say I was a Vanderbilt fan growing up,” Jackson said. “I remember visiting campus and going to a few basketball games as a kid. When I started to look at schools, I always had Vanderbilt in the back of my mind, because I knew how much my dad had loved it.”
In 2016, Jackson landed at Vanderbilt as a freshman midfielder from Atlanta, and she wasted no time making her Commodore family proud. Jackson ended the regular season as the Dores’ leader in points (16), assists (six) and game-winning goals (three) and tied for first in goals (five). Her efforts earned her a spot on the SEC’s All-Freshman Team.
Jackson provided an immediate spark to the Commodores, but her production did little to surprise head coach Darren Ambrose.
“We said this all along, but Grace is the embodiment of what you’re looking for in a college soccer player,” Ambrose said. “She’s a competitive kid and a natural leader. Even as a rising sophomore, her classmates look up to her. Grace is a bright kid and she knows there’s an opportunity to contribute even more this fall."
Last season, Jackson and Vanderbilt earned a No. 6 seed in the SEC tournament following a regular season that featured a number of high points. The Commodores upset No. 14 Texas A&M in September for the program’s second ranked victory under Ambrose. Vanderbilt later took No. 2 South Carolina to overtime in a tight 2-1 loss in Nashville, and it won road overtime matches against SEC foes Tennessee (3-2) and Mississippi State (2-1).
Though the Dores eventually fell to 2-seed Arkansas, 1-0, in the SEC tournament, Jackson and her fellow freshmen stocked up on experience during their inaugural stint on campus. The likes of Hannon Eberts (12 points, five goals, two assists) and Nia Dorsey (seven points, two goals, three assists) teamed with Jackson to form a freshman class that found its footing early.
ELLIS: Vanderbilt one part of soccer's newfound popularity in Nashville
Now Jackson sees that experience as an advantage heading into 2017.
“Many of us were kind of thrown into the fire, and we played a lot of minutes,” Jackson said. “All the experience we’ve gained over this past year, that’s definitely going to help us this season.”
That group of sophomores rejoins a class of veteran upperclassmen headlined by Cristina De Zeeuw and Lydia Simmons. The Commodores also add a spark of seniority in Stanford graduate transfer Stephanie Amack, who played in 60 career games with the Cardinal and was the youngest player on the winning FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup team in 2012. Ambrose calls Amack “the most decorated player, on paper, to play in this program.”
Plus, senior Simone Charley returns in 2017 following a redshirt season last fall. Charley, an All-SEC honoree in 2013, 2014 and 2015, adds a necessary element of speed to Vanderbilt’s roster.
“Simone is a big boost,” Ambrose said. “She gives other teams something to worry about. Due respect to our kids last year, we played differently without the pace Simone brings. We didn’t have the speed to really stretch other teams.”
The pieces to Vanderbilt’s puzzle excite Jackson as she looks ahead to 2017. As a freshman, she got a taste of the Commodores’ true potential. Now Jackson hopes her childhood team can take another step forward in the SEC.
“This Vanderbilt team is definitely on the rise,” Jackson said. “We’re getting better every year, and we can play a big role in the popularity of soccer in Nashville. We’re growing just like the sport’s support here in Nashville.”
Vanderbilt opens its season in an exhibition match against Furman on Wednesday, Aug. 9, at 5:30 CT at the Vanderbilt Soccer Complex.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics. Check out his story archive and follow him on Twitter here.