Jaelin Howell looked out across a large, excited crowd at Florida State and prepared to address them. Years earlier, she might not have been as composed; but after winning her second national championship with Florida State in a shootout over BYU, the senior stood up on behalf of her teammates and thanked the fans who welcomed them home from the College Cup.
“Jaelin stood up there and had a little bit of a speech,” FSU head coach Mark Krikorian says. “She delivered it graciously, elegantly and she looked like a leader. She looked like a pro … It had nothing to do with being on the field. It had everything to do with the way she presented herself.”
It took a few seasons for Howell to grow into the person who could both dominate college soccer and command the respect of her coaches and teammates. The traits the team admires in Howell – her leadership, competitiveness and growth mentality – are the same ones that have impressed coaches at the next level, where Howell is expected to land as the No. 1 pick in Saturday’s NWSL College Draft.
Howell’s Florida State coaches saw her potential as a leader before she did, naming her captain as a sophomore. Krikorian says they chose her because she is an emotional leader, the type who can set the tone and standard for others. It was clear she had the capacity to develop other leadership qualities, as well.
The role was a lot of responsibility for Howell to take on, as she was leading players who were older than she was at 19. But she had good teachers in the seniors who guided the Seminoles to a national title in 2018 during Howell’s freshman year.
“As a freshman, I didn’t realize how big of a deal honestly it was, winning a national championship, and how hard it is,” she says.
The daughter of Super Bowl champion John Howell, Jaelin brought a winning mentality to Florida State. In the years between FSU’s two national championships, she learned how to channel her competitiveness to get her teammates to buy in, too.
Howell and Krikorian would often sit in his office and pore over the monthly Coaching and Leadership Journal, full of tips and stories from successful people all around the world, in industries from sports to business. Howell got to choose which sections to focus on in their sessions, and she and Krikorian would unpack the details.
A big lesson Howell took away from those meetings is that captaincy is not entirely up to her.
“I depend on a lot of girls on the team to help me lead,” she says. “I think it’s partly asking the other older players their opinions and really having everybody involved so it’s not just you making decisions – it’s a full-team effort.”
As early as Howell’s first game at Florida State, where she imposed herself physically in a 5-0 win over Troy, Krikorian knew he was working with potentially one of the best holding midfielders in the world. Her athleticism, strength and power made her the type of player Krikorian could build a program around.
Currently in the running for her second MAC Hermann Trophy, the 5-foot-8 midfielder is a physical player by nature who goes for every tackle and tries to win every header. This year, she led a defense that recorded 23 shutouts and conceded only 13 goals.
Throughout her college career, the FSU coaching staff has worked with Howell on the tactical and technical sides of her game, specifically spacing, getting touches in the midfield and changing the point of attack.
“That’s part of the reason why I came here, just to be that double-sided six,” says the Lone Tree, Colo. native. “Somebody who can go in and tackle, but also be the playmaker.”
Howell says Krikorian is a good match for her development because they’re both “no B.S. type of people” who keep conversations about the game straightforward and to the point.
“I want to hear the things that I can improve on more than the good things,” Howell says. “He’s able to do that with me. I want to be able to listen to that. I think that’s been something that’s really helped my growth as a player while being here, is just his ability to be honest, and it’s all out of love.”
Krikorian describes her as a “sponge” – coachable and open-minded. Whatever Krikorian tells her the team needs, she delivers. Howell demonstrated that during her last three games in a Seminoles uniform.
Near the end of Florida State’s NCAA quarterfinal game on Nov. 26, the sold-out crowd of 2,100 in Tallahassee, Fla. groaned as they watched Michigan goalkeeper Hillary Beall save Howell’s penalty kick in the 74th minute to preserve a 0-0 tie. Howell, frustrated, put a hand to her forehead and glanced at the goal before turning to run back into position. Fifteen minutes later, the two-time ACC Midfielder of the Year made the cross to Gabby Carle that broke the tie in overtime and sent the Seminoles to the College Cup.
“I think that shows a lot about her psychological dimension and being able to be a big-game player and play in that moment,” Krikorian says. “She has a wonderful mentality, which is second to none.”
In the semifinal against Rutgers, Howell executed her role as Florida State’s corner-kick target, scoring the game-winner that sent the Seminoles to the College Cup final for the third time in her career.
During the championship game on Dec. 6, the 22-year-old converted a penalty kick to give the Seminoles a 3-2 advantage in their 4-3 shootout win. Before that, she controlled play in the center of the park, making crunching tackles and earning a yellow card that could have easily turned into two. TV cameras caught her at the sideline mouthing to her teammate, “I can’t foul anymore.”
“I can’t foul anymore” 😂*When you know you’re lucky to still be in the game #COLLEGECUP pic.twitter.com/1bTuB5Q7xR— Jordan Angeli (@jordangeli) December 7, 2021
“I can’t foul anymore” 😂*When you know you’re lucky to still be in the game #COLLEGECUP pic.twitter.com/1bTuB5Q7xR
That wasn’t the first time Twitter found amusement in Howell’s lip reading. While she was receiving her medal at the SheBelieves Cup after her second cap with the U.S. women’s national team in February, the broadcast zeroed in on her face during the ceremony. Confused, she asked her teammates beside her, “Why am I on the big screen?”
When recalling that moment, Howell laughed.
“I knew I belonged there and I’ve worked very hard to get there, and specifically for those camps, but it was still a surreal moment standing on stage with some of those players at a tournament like that,” she says. “And so when I saw myself on the big screen, when you have Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, all these great players surrounding me, I was like, ‘I don’t know why they’re showing me right now.’ I was just kind of awestruck in that moment, honestly.”
Shoutout to the @USWNT on the being the #SheBelievesCup champs! Also shoutout to @jaehowell18 who happens to be the most relatable person in this team. “Why am I on the big screen?” 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/NtNVqo2g4K— Abby Zennie (@ABzenn10) February 25, 2021
Shoutout to the @USWNT on the being the #SheBelievesCup champs! Also shoutout to @jaehowell18 who happens to be the most relatable person in this team. “Why am I on the big screen?” 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/NtNVqo2g4K
That tournament came three months after Howell’s first USWNT cap in November, when she subbed on in the 89th minute for Sam Mewis against the Netherlands. A year later, she was nominated for U.S. Soccer’s 2021 Young Player of the Year award.
“Jaelin is a talented young player with a lot of good qualities,” USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski tells Just Women’s Sports. “She’s always very competitive and great in the team environment. We’ve enjoyed working with her during the few times we’ve had her in with the national team.”
Howell hasn’t made an appearance with the national team since then, but Andonovski hopes to see more of her in 2022.
“They’ve given her the opportunity to have her senior year and play the games and recognize that it was important for us to be able to have her as we have, but now it’s time for her to start that professional career at the international senior level and continue to develop on that,” Krikorian says. “For me, I’ll always be a fan watching and supporting her from whatever distance it may be. But she knows that.”
Over time, Howell has gotten more comfortable playing with her idols on the national team. She was especially grateful when the older players took her under their wings.
“Then you’re able to kind of get in a groove and you’re not as starstruck, like, ‘No, I do belong here. I want to stay here. I want to be a starter,’” she says.
As she prepares to enter the next stage of her soccer career, those who’ve watched her grow into a top prospect know she’s capable of so much more than that.
In Krikorian’s words: “She’ll certainly go down as one of the greats.”
Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.