29 Sep Freeport grad becomes starting goalie for Fighting Illini
It didn’t take long for Freeport native Naomi Jackson to work her way into the starting lineup for the Illinois women’s soccer squad.
And now that she’s there, the freshman already is setting records — and it doesn’t appear she intends to leave the net for the next three-plus years.
“It has not been an easy and smooth road, that’s for sure,” Jackson said Monday, a week after claiming the Big Ten co-freshman of the week. “It’s been tough. I expected to get here, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen. And now that I’m here, I know I have to keep it going and I have to keep playing well so I can stay here.”
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Jackson has gone from Freeport’s star goalie through the Pretzels’ spring postseason run to the Illini’s starting goalie at just past the midseason point — all in a little over three months.
And she did not just quietly slide into the starter’s role.
She tied an Illinois record for most saves in a game by a freshman with 13 at No. 21 Michigan on Sept. 17, in just her third game as the starter. She tied Sarah Anderson who did it against Penn State on Nov. 3, 2000, which was also the last time an Illinois player recorded 13 saves in a game.
Jackson’s 35 shots faced in the match was the second-most in school history, just one behind the 36 shots Anderson faced in that same game.
Here are the top three challenges Jackson had to overcome to get to where she’s at now:
1. Making the transition
Jackson led Freeport to a 15-1 record and into the sectional finals, giving up her first goal of the season in a 2-1 sectional semifinal victory. The Pretzels bowed out in the next round, and Jackson surrendered just two goals the entire season.
Then it was on to the world of Division-I soccer.
She started training with the Illini early in the summer, and worked her way through camp as the team’s No. 2 goalie. Julia Cili started out the season in goal for Illinois.
Jackson was catching eyes as soon as she arrived in Champaign, though. She was also learning as much, and as fast, as she could.
“I had to conquer a lot of things first, and I knew that,” Jackson said. “Balancing college life with soccer, and just getting everything started in the right way. … It helped to step back and kind of be the observer at first. I think down the road, I’ll look back on that time and know I grew a lot in there.”
2. Getting her shot
Jackson got some small bits of action in goal early in the season, but she really got her shot when Cili went into concussion protocols after absorbing a hit late in a 2-1 loss to Xavier on Sept. 2.
Jackson led the Illini to a 5-1 win over Bowling Green the next week, and she’s been in goal ever since. She’s given up six goals in the past five games, then last Tuesday she earned the Big Ten honor after one of the best games by a Fighting Illini goalie in nearly four years.
Illinois fell 2-1 in double-overtime to then-No. 21 Michigan on Sept. 17. But in just her third game in goal for the Illini, Jackson had 13 saves, the most in an Illini game since Jaelyn Cunningham in 2017. Michigan got off a total of 35 shots.
Even the two goals that slid past were credited to poor defense.
“She made the initial save,” Illini coach Janet Rayfield said in her postgame interview, adding later: “Certainly, we would say she’s the goalkeeper now.”
3. Helping turn the team around
Jackson went on to have eight saves in a 2-1 home loss to Purdue last Thursday, and three saves in a 2-1 loss to Indiana on Sunday.
But Illinois (4-6) continued to lose. The Illini have dropped three in a row and six of their last eight headed into Thursday’s match with Northwestern.
Jackson wants to help turn that around, and in doing so she knows she will be able to solidify her starting spot as well.
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“I know that there’s a little pressure now, of course,” said Jackson, the 2021 Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association Player of the Year. “I have a lot to learn still. I’m still growing emotionally and physically, but it’s been a good transition.
“As a team, we know we are capable of a lot more. I’m just waiting for this offense to really break through. I’ll be here.”
Illinois has four home games and two road games throughout October, and then the Illini will embark of their first Big Ten Tournament, which kicks off on Oct. 31, with Jackson in net.
“I’m just excited for what’s to come,” Jackson said.
Jay Taft: email@example.com; @JayTaft
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