After a strong sophomore campaign where he led Northwestern’s boys soccer team in assists and was second in goals, Jackson Hale’s junior campaign should have been a breakout year.
Instead there was just a void. His junior soccer and basketball seasons were wiped out last fall when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee as the soccer season began.
“I think it’s huge when you take a player that good and you just sit him down for a season, it can go one of two ways,” Northwestern coach Aaron Longgood said. “He can either fall into [a mindset of], ‘I’m nervous, I’m never going to be as good as I once was, I’m scared to go into challenges.’ Whereas you look at how he’s come out, he’s come out playing extremely confident in his knees and I think that’s really important. Him having that confidence to rebound and have faith in his knee is huge.”
Hale’s answer has been emphatic. Twelve games into the season, Hale has 18 goals and 16 assists. He’s already surpassed his numbers as a sophomore, and leads the 10-2 Tigers in both categories.
“I feel way better honestly,” Hale said of how he feels physically compared to what he expected. “I came into my senior year, I didn’t think I’d be as good as I was because I tore my ACL, but honestly with my trainer and my team’s motivation and stuff, I came back better than ever. I just feel way better than I thought it was going to be.”
Hale was able to return to club soccer this past summer around the same time Northwestern started practicing. He plays with the Indy Phoenix and getting a couple goals in a win over the squad that beat them in a travel season state title game last year helped Hale feel like he was on the right path physically.
Getting back to full strength physically was one issue. Getting his skill set back was another.
“I feel like I’m at the top of my game right now honestly. With playing travel soccer compared to high school soccer, it’s way different,” Hale said. High school opponents come in a wider range of team talent teams and quality individuals. “High school kids, they’re not as fast and they’re not as motivated to win. When I have that type of competition I’m playing against and I know we can win, it just motivates me to score more.”
Hale scored two goals Tuesday night in Northwestern’s 3-1 victory over Class 2A No. 9 Oak Hill, a potential sectional opponent. His second goal came on a 30-yard lefty blast that ripped the left side netting. He generated crushing power with that same left knee that was injured 13 months ago.
“I’ve never seen a shot like it, never seen a foot like his,” Longgood said. “He just creates so much power and keeps it so low. That’s his spot and he’s going to rip it from there any time he can.”
Goals are just fractions of time in a game. The amount of work Hale puts into helping Northwestern generate those moments is where he really makes his mark.
He roams around the midfield, going as deep as to be in line with defensive midfielders all the way to the point of attack. When he gets on the ball in midfield, Hale will absorb the defensive pressure of one, two or even three defenders before moving the ball to open spots, and getting available further up field for return passes to either shoot himself, or deliver attacking passes for others.
“He’s playing at an extremely high level and people are taking notice,” Longgood said.
“What he does so special is that teams have to cover for him, so him just calling for the ball is the same thing as him passing the ball out, it just frees up so much space because people are so focused on him. His presence alone can distract two or three players at a time. That leaves huge amounts of space on the left and right hand side and we exploit that really well.”
Hale thinks next season’s Northwestern squad may be better than this one, but he plans to be playing in college by that time. The campaign at hand also has a lot of promise.
He said Northwestern excels at “passing offensively, and having a threat in the box. And then our defense is outstanding. They don’t let kids just get past them easily. They’re a wall back there.”
Forward Drew Bowser is second on the team with eight goals, Kai Jackson has six and Wes Miller and Zam Miller have four each. Jackson and Zam Miller each have seven assists, and Wes Miller five.
That potency was on full display as Northwestern dominated Oak Hill, dealing the Golden Eagles their first loss of the season. Northwestern had more of the ball, more chances on goal, and emerged with a victory over a squad that came into the game ranked 11 spots above the Tigers.
“I feel like we connected really well in the passing,” Hale said of the Oak Hill game. “Our midfield controlled the game. After that, once we found a rhythm in through balls and stuff like that, we just outran their whole defense, and we just passed around them left and right.”
With the Northwestern Sectional two weeks away, the Tigers are 3-0 against potential sectional opponents and have faced the toughest of those squads. Northwestern’s only two losses are to Class 2A No. 7 West Lafayette — 3-1 to start the season, and 2-1 in the Hoosier Conference tournament.
Hale talked about how confident he is in the Tigers when the postseason starts.
“Oh, very capable,” he said. “I feel like we could run sectionals, and depending on regionals I feel like we have a really good chance of winning that too, and then I’m hoping we see West Lafayette again in semistate.”