It all began as just another day for Riley Jackson, but it quickly evolved into one she’ll never forget.
Aware that she’d been named her state’s Gatorade Girls Soccer Player of the Year a week prior, Jackson and her father headed to her high school Thursday in Roswell, Ga., to take part in what she thought were the ceremonial photos for being the recipient of that award, but when she approached the doors of the school’s library, something much more prestigious was waiting on the other side.
To Jackson’s surprise, the room was filled with friends, family, teammates and a coordinated media team who were all on hand to watch her receive the trophy for Gatorade National Girls Soccer Player of the Year, an award in which the sophomore standout bested nearly half a million student-athletes from across the country.
“My mouth was hanging wide open. I was probably about to cry,” Jackson said. “Seeing all my friends and family there to support me was huge. The huge camera crew, I honestly didn’t really know what to do in the moment because I was just so overwhelmed with excitement.
“Honestly, at first, it was confusion because I thought that I was just going to take a couple pictures, and it turned into a big ceremony to have this award presented to me.”
To top it off, Chicago Red Stars and U.S. Women’s National Team star Mallory Pugh was on hand via Zoom to surprise Jackson with the award, which has only had three sophomore winners in its 37 years of existence. But make no mistake about her age — Jackson is already well-decorated.
And this is only the beginning.
“I’m super grateful to have the opportunity,” Jackson said about receiving the national honor. “I think, for me, it’s a motivator to keep working hard, to keep wanting to achieve what I’ve trained for my entire life and keep working toward those goals and wanting to get better every single day.”
The 5-foot-8 midfielder wrapped up her sophomore year at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School with 14 goals and 18 assists despite missing the postseason due to obligations with the U.S. Soccer U17 Women’s National Team. The Titans finished 19-2-1 on the year and were ousted in the semifinals of the Class 5A state tournament, however, Jackson was making a name for herself on a much grander stage.
The U17 national team defeated Mexico 2-1 in the championship, and Jackson was the Golden Ball winner, awarded to the tournament’s best player.
“It’s always been my dream to represent my country and play outside of the country because that was actually my first international trip,” said Jackson, who captained the Americans in the final. “Having that opportunity and being a part of that team meant a lot to me. Even putting on the crest means a lot to me every single day there.
“I always say, ‘When I put on the crest, I feel like I can fly,’ so having the opportunity to play and represent my country meant a lot. And to win the tournament and win the Golden Ball, I don’t think I could’ve done all the things I did without the support of my friends and family back home but also my coaches and teammates while I was there because we had such a close relationship.”
In addition to her on-the-field accomplishments, Jackson has also demonstrated excellence in the classroom, where she’s maintained a weighted 4.26 GPA, and she volunteers locally as a youth soccer instructor and camp coach.
“It means a lot to me to be a role model for the little girls in my community also because I do live in a tight-knit community,” said Jackson, who’s also a USSF certified, paid referee, “so having the opportunity and the support to be an inspiration for those little girls means a lot to me, too.”
Pugh’s rise to national stardom at such a young age is an inspiration to Jackson, but she also tries to model her game after several others on the USWNT, including Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan.
“Riley Jackson can change the game with one touch of the ball,” said Jason Page, head coach of Walton High School in Georgia. “She can out-work any player on the field, her vision is national-elite level and she has precision passing with amazing touch.”
The Gatorade Player of the Year program annually recognizes 51 recipients from each of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, and it includes one national recipient from each sport. The student-athletes are selected by the Gatorade Player of the Year Selection Committee, which leverages experts including coaches, scouts, media and others as sources to help determine the state winners in each sport.
The award recognizes not only outstanding athletic performance but also high standards of academic achievement and exceptional character demonstrated both on and off the field. The program was established in 1985, and its recipients have won hundreds of professional and college championships. Previous winners across all sports include a distinguished list of athletes, including Pugh, Aly Wagner, Heather O’Reilly, Lauren Holiday, Abby Wambach, Elena Delle Donne and many other sports icons.
Through Gatorade’s “Play it Forward” platform, Jackson has the opportunity to award a $1,000 grant to a local or national organization of her choosing, designed to help young athletes realize the benefits of playing sports. Jackson is also eligible to submit a short video explaining why the organization she chose is deserving of one of twelve $10,000 spotlight grants, which will be announced throughout the year.
“Riley Jackson is now a part of an elite alumni group of past Gatorade Players of the Year, including athletic icons such as Peyton Manning and Abby Wambach,” said Gatorade Senior Vice President and General Manager Brett O’Brien. “She has proven why her name belongs on the trophy and we have no doubt Riley will go on to accomplish great things in and out of sport like so many POY winners before her.”
Congratulations Riley Jackson '24 for being named Gatorade National Girls Soccer Player of the Year! #NowAndForever pic.twitter.com/VHjVrQcpFh— Blessed Trinity (@BTCatholic) June 30, 2022
Congratulations Riley Jackson '24 for being named Gatorade National Girls Soccer Player of the Year! #NowAndForever pic.twitter.com/VHjVrQcpFh
Only nine sophomores across all sports have been bestowed the honor of being named Gatorade National Player of the Year, including last year’s girls soccer recipient in Alyssa Thomason.
Jackson is the ninth, and Thursday’s surprise only reinforces the goals for which she continues to strive.
“Obviously it’s important for me to be a good all-around person, whether it’s academically or on the field,” Jackson said. “As of right now, it’s just about kind of figuring out what I want to do with college, just deciding what school would be a good fit for me to help me reach my future goals of playing internationally and playing professionally and being on the women’s national team.”
Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.