COVINGTON, Ga. — Jackson Hamby is one of those players that Eastside boys soccer coach Champ Young doesn’t mind gushing about — and Young really doesn’t gush a whole lot.
But with Hamby, the fifth-ranked Eagles’ junior goalie, he’s content to make an exception. That’s because Hamby’s journey is one that the coach says he doesn’t see very often anymore in youth sports.
“He’s got his own little Michael Jordan story over there,” Young said, referring to how the widely considered greatest-of-all-time basketball player got cut from his high school team before going on to stardom with the North Carolina Tar Heels in college and the Chicago Bulls of the NBA.
It remains to be seen if Hamby will reach similar G.O.A.T. status in soccer, but so far, in his first two years playing the game, Jordan and “Jack,” as Young calls him, at least share a similar kind of high school bounce-back story.
“He’s one of the kids I love talking about, because I know what Jack’s done to get where he is,” Young said. “Jack got cut as a ninth grader. He came out as a field player with his twin brother Ben and he didn’t make it.”
For Young, and virtually anyone else you talk to that’s acquainted with Eastside soccer, Hamby’s issue was really never a talent thing as much as it was a matter of confidence — or lack thereof.
After all, Hamby, standing about 6-feet-3 inches, is prototype size for an elite goalie. But even when the skill or belief in himself wasn’t visible, the heart was. And that’s Young’s favorite part of Hamby’s story.
“He came back out the very next year after he got cut, and played every single game with the JV,” Young said. “He kind of rotated back and forth with another kid (at goalie), and eventually we sat them both down in the meeting room last year and said it’s a battle between you two. They were both kind of neck and neck, but Jack wanted it, man. And now, well, ya’ll see what he can do.”
What he’s done is become one of the anchors of a solid Eastside squad that seems to have region championship and deep state playoff run written all over it.
You would need to look no further than Eastside’s 2-1 win over Region 4-AAAA rival Woodward Academy — a win that helped thrust the Eagles to the front of the standings — to see what sent Hamby’s confidence skyrocketing.
It happened in the Woodward game when a War Eagle player slightly beat out an Eastside defender on a breakaway and fired off a shot that Hamby stretched out for. He got enough of his hand on it to change the shot’s trajectory and keep Woodward off the board on that possession.
It’s the save that he himself points to as being responsible for his newfound belief in his ability to play this game at a high level.
“The Woodward game was just such a great feeling,” he said. “Definitely that first save in that game was huge. That shot was going into the right corner and I was able to stop it. That play really helped me a lot, and from it I just really felt like we could actually be good this year.”
So far, Eastside’s been better than good.
The 2-1 result against Woodward in front of a raucous home crowd seemed to invigorate an already resolute bunch that Young said had decided before the season began that being good enough to make it to the playoffs but not consistently showing up against upper echelon competition indeed wasn’t good enough at all.
That Woodward win put Eastside at No. 5 in the Class AAAA state rankings. Then came Wednesday night against Justin Guest and Luella. Eastside thoroughly dominated possession in a 4-2 result that put the Eagles alone atop the region standings.
Hamby said it was his personal ambition to help Eastside show it can compete with, and beat, teams that have traditionally had the Eagles’ number. So far, Eastside’s only loss was a 4-2 setback to Class AAAAA No. 1 Johnson. But even in that game, it was Eastside that jumped out to early leads, only to relinquish them after key players went down to injury.
Beyond that, Young said the 7-1-1 start to the season — all while looking the part of a program taking that next step — is due to players like Hamby taking ownership of the kind of season they want to have.
“We talked about it at the beginning of the year how last year, we had a great record, a good year, but against top teams we didn’t do so hot,” Young said. “And those are the games we lost. But this year, I would say we’re a year older, a year more mature, a year more invested and they’ve got a mentality to where if we get scored on first, especially in a tight game, we respond like a minute, maybe a minute and a half later with a score.
“When we were younger and we’d get challenged, we wouldn’t quite know how to respond. But now when we get challenged, it’s almost like they take it as a personal attack, and we come out and do something about it. And Jack’s been a big, pivotal part of us developing that mentality.”
That could be due to how Hamby handled his own personal adversity on the soccer field.
“I definitely wasn’t as good last year as I am this year,” Hamby said.
He credits much of his development to his time spent with the MAYSA soccer club in Madison.
“Tristan (Aldridge)’s dad gave my name to the club, but at the time I was so adamant about not playing,” he said. “And I ended up playing, and sat behind this guy for a couple games, and he just left the program for no reason. So I played, and we picked up a lot of wins. Good wins in close games, and that really just turned me over because I really found my confidence there.”
Hamby also credits the tutelage of former Eastside keeper Jackson Gann for his improvement.
Gann, a four-year starter in the goal who graduated in 2018, gave Hamby the understudy treatment and helped him develop tools to make him successful in his own starting role. Now that Hamby is where Gann stood for all those years, the first-year starter says his former tutor still shows up to games and practices and is still willing to help him along.
“Having him be here at games and practices has been huge,” Hamby said. “He’s helped me with my confidence in getting better. I just like having him around.”
No doubt Young and Eastside are going to love having Hamby around for another year once this season is done. It’ll give Young the opportunity to help Hamby realize his full potential.
“As big as he is, the sky’s the limit for him,” Young said. “He doesn’t even know how good he can be yet. He’s making saves now just off of athletic ability and instincts — the stuff you can’t teach. He hasn’t even learned all the nuances of that part of the game that he’ll learn as we continue to go.”
Hamby said he’s picked up on such, slowly but surely as the season progresses.
“A lot of things Jackson taught me last year, and things I’m learning over the years I’ve played is positioning and where I am in the net,” Hamby said. “Usually if I’m in the right position, I don’t have to make a great looking save.”
Hamby made a couple of pretty nifty ones Wednesday night against Luella. One from about 25 feet out with his left hand, and then another where he denied Luella’s Guest on a breakaway.
“He’s the kid that’s so dangerous for them, and Jack just stoned him,” Young said. “Both of those saves were in the second half, and if he doesn’t make them, both of those plays would’ve changed the complexion of the game. He was up to the task.”
Now Hamby says he’s ready to see himself beyond just a good high school player.
“Last year I wasn’t thinking about ever playing college,” he said. “But a lot of players say I have a chance if I keep working at it. So I really want to go to college now, and hopefully I can get a scholarship somewhere.”
Young reiterated that Hamby’s definitely shown the skill needed to be a collegiate prospect. Now, after battling his way back to make the team and contribute majorly after that initial cut, the coach says he keeps on displaying his next-level heart.
“That’s not easy to bounce back like that after being cut,” Young said. “That’s a humbling thing. And so much with our lifestyle these days, if it doesn’t happen right away or on the first time, so many kids say it’s somebody else’s fault. But Jack’s showed that sometimes it doesn’t happen on the first try, but you can respond and get the kind of result you want. He’s such a different kid than he was last year.
“That kid’s come out of his shell so much this year. He’s really changed his stars, and it’s fun to watch.”