By Lee Noles
Jayden Emmanuel was 8 years old when she made a big decision in her young soccer career. Instead of choosing to play forward and score goals, Emmanuel wanted to be the one stopping them.
Becoming a goalkeeper proved a good choice as the junior at Sun Valley High School made a verbal commitment this month to the University of Florida’s women’s soccer program.
West Virginia, Wake Forest and 21-time national champion UNC-Chapel Hill were among 17 schools that contacted Emmanuel, but the connection with Florida coach Becky Burleigh was big behind her decision. Burleigh has guided Florida to a national title and 14 Southeastern Conference championships.
“I have never played for a female coach before,” Emmanuel said. “I could relate to her and the openness she had was good for me. And the fact that I also could be open with her.”
Academics and volunteering are just as important as Emmanuel’s on-field success. She maintains a 4.4 grade point average as a member of Sun Valley’s National Honor Society and BETA club. She was involved in a school event for underprivileged children and tutored middle and high school students. Outside of school, she annually goes with her parents, Darleen Cooper and Jonathan Emmanuel, to volunteer at a soup kitchen.
“I always want to give back to my community whenever I can,” Emmanuel said.
COVID-19 had Emmanuel developing creative ways to stay sharp after the lockdown stopped team sports. She created a workout to include hiking and biking. From the mental side, she watched videos of goalkeepers and read books on growth mindset and persevering.
“It was different, but we had to make the most of what we could,” Emmanuel said.
The decision at 8 years old to focus on being a goalie started a quick ascent as Emmanuel played on teams with girls two years older than her. By the time she was 12, her teammates were 16-year-olds.
“It was definitely a new experience for me. I was nervous at first,” Emmanuel said. “But I knew if I did it, I would get better and I knew I had to adapt to the harder shots.”
This past year brought a great accomplishment but another tough decision. Emmanuel’s club team, Charlotte Soccer Academy, participated in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. The academy’s purpose was to bring top programs in the United States together to develop players for the U.S. Youth National Team. The downside was the 10-month commitment.
“I had to look at my options for the future and the college coaches come out to the (Development Academy) games,” said Emmanuel, who started as a freshman at Sun Valley. “I had to sacrifice my high school soccer to get that full training.”
The U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy stopped operations because of what was stated on its website as a financial situation brought on by the circumstances from COVID-19. The change had Emmanuel’s club switching to another development program. It also means there is a chance she plays for the Spartans in 2021 if restrictions from the pandemic are lifted.
“It was so much fun playing for my school and building bonds,” Emmanuel said. “I enjoyed the camaraderie I had with the people I go to school with.”