Jackson girls soccer team’s turnaround built on trust

Many things came together this season for the Jackson girls soccer team.

That explains how the Timberwolves reached the Class 4A state tournament — which opens today — after failing to make the playoffs in 2012.

But while most of what went Jackson’s way happened on the field in front of everyone, one of the seeds of success was sown in private before the season even began.

It’s called the “Trust Circle.”

The Timberwolves, like many groups seeking a better connection between its members, took part in a team-building exercise. However, unlike many organizations, the Jackson players didn’t leave the lessons learned on the rope course. In fact, they brought back the Trust Circle — the players name for a circular piece of rope — and made it part of their pregame routine.

The players hold onto the rope “lean back and squat,” sophomore Maddie Cooley said. “It just shows the balance of a team and how when you work together, it works out.”

Things definitely worked out this season for Jackson, which lost just two games on the way to a Wesco 4A South co-championship (shared with Edmonds-Woodway), something that no one other than those clad in green and black saw coming.

“I think that the girls got more used to me and I got used to them,” Jackson’s second-year coach, Jesslyn Kellerman, said. “This group of girls is just amazing the way they worked together, the way they enjoy being together.”

Last year the team went through a bit of a freefall after the departure of coach Mike Bartley, who had built a perennial contender but left to coach the boy and girls teams at Archbishop Murphy. In 2011, Bartley’s final year, the Timberwolves lost in the first round of the state tournament, the last of seven trips to state in eight years.

Kellerman’s first year as a varsity head coach came following two years as coach of the Lynnwood junior varsity, a position she accepted after completing her collegiate career at Seattle Pacific University.

“Changing coaches is really difficult,” Kellerman said. “I think changing coaches from a male to a female coach could be different also, so I think there were a lot of factors that made last year a huge transition year. There was a big learning curve for everybody.”

Current captain and junior goalkeeper Callie VanAelst acknowledged the change was difficult. “I knew it definitely impacted our team and our season,” she said.

Kellerman said her unfamiliarity with the league and the opposing players made things difficult, and relied too heavily on scouting reports. This year, she and the girls focused more on themselves and didn’t worry as much about what the competition was doing.

“There’s so much talent on the team that I just want to help guide them in the right direction,” Kellerman said. “I don’t want to do anything too dramatic that’s going to mess up the flow that they already have.”

The talent includes leading scorer Nikki Hovland, who had 12 goals during the regular season. Cooley was first-team All-Wesco as a freshman and is integral in feeding the scorers. She also has four goals. VanAelst has become a leader in the back, something she was initially reluctant to do.

“She’s a naturally quieter-type leader,” Kellerman said of her keeper. “So I’ve really been encouraging her to be more vocal and tell her defense what she needs and she’s been stepping into that role, which has been helpful.”

The biggest surprise this year might be center back Mackenzie Hanson. The senior transferred to Jackson from Las Vegas and had always played forward, but that was Hovland’s job and there was room for only one forward in the Timberwolves’ usual formation.

“She was a little bit nervous about (changing positions) at the beginning and wasn’t too sure about it,” Kellerman said. “In our Lake Stevens game she had to go in because of an injury and just totally stepped up and owned that spot and hasn’t been out since then.”

Paired with the other center defender, freshman Rikki Myers, they have turned the defense into a formidable unit.

But for the most part the talent was there a year ago, it just needed to get on the same page. This season the Timberwolves have done just that.

“It’s really an amazing feeling because last year we didn’t have such a successful season and this year I feel like we’re such a close team and we’ve really connected this year,” Cooley said. “It’s a good feeling knowing our hard work has paid off.”

Last Thursday Jackson suffered just its second defeat of the season, a 3-1 setback at the hands of Edmonds Woodway in the district title game. Though it was costly in that the Timberwolves lost the chance to host a first-round game, it wasn’t the end of the road.

“I just told the girls ‘It’s unfortunate we have to travel, but you might as well travel with a group of girls you really like,’” Kellerman said. “It’s not what we hoped for, but we’ll get there either way.”

The Timberwolves must to travel to Spokane, where they face Mead (15-3, second in the Greater Spokane League). The Timberwolves last faced Mead in 2008 in a 3-1 loss during the third-place game at state. Should they win today, they would return Eastern Washington again on Saturday.

Whether they win or lose today, they will do it as a family. It’s something Kellerman has tried to instill and having her newborn daughter, Moriah, around the team this season has only helped that cause.

“Maddie Cooley said one day, ‘Oh my gosh when I’m a senior she’s going to be running around and kicking a soccer ball! I just can’t wait,’” Kellerman said. “That describes what I want my program to be: My girls here knowing and enjoying and being a part of my family. They’ll be my babysitters

“I love the feeling and the connection that we all have.”

State girls soccer schedule

4A State

Jackson vs. Mead at University H.S., Tuesday, 5 p.m.

Olympia vs. Edmonds-Woodway at Edmonds Stadium, Tuesday, 7 p.m.

3A State

Bainbridge vs. Meadowdale at Edmonds Stadium, Tuesday, 5 p.m.

Marysville Pilchuck vs. Bishop Blanchet at Chief Sealth H.S., Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.

Shorecrest vs. Auburn Mountainview at Auburn Memorial Stadium, Wednesday, 7 p.m.

2A State

Archbishop Murphy vs. Kingston, TBA

1A State Championships

Seattle Christian at King’s, Tuesday, 4 p.m.

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