Duke wasn't always the likeliest landing spot for 2018-19 Gatorade High School National Player of the Year Sophie Jones.
But even with Stanford sitting less than three miles south from her hometown of Menlo Park, Calif., she just didn't see herself anywhere else.
“Growing up, my mom and my grandma went to Stanford—I have a photo when I’m literally one year old at a Stanford-Cal game," Jones told The Chronicle. "[But] I just really connected with [Duke head coach Robbie Church] and the coaching staff as a whole…. On top of that, I went to a basketball game and was like, 'Okay, I can picture myself here again.' I’m an avid sports fan, so I'd always been a fan of Duke basketball…. Blue is my favorite color, so that always helps. And WU being like the number-one-rated cafeteria just topped it off.”
That’s Jones, sophomore midfielder for the Blue Devils. She’s an exceptional presence on the field, commanding the attention of half the pitch, directing an entire offense at ease.
Off the field, Jones is unassuming, apart from her insistence upon keeping her incredibly curly hair down despite the humidity. She’s easy to talk to, prefers to lead by example rather than by voice and is happy to discuss everything from her interest in psychology to her supernova of a high school senior season to her volunteering. And she’s casually passed by hundreds of people on campus who have had no idea that they’d perhaps just seen one of American soccer’s next great talents.
Even Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young is impressed.
"Sophie is super humble, super grounded and a human you just want to be around,” Young told Sports Illustrated in June 2019 after Jones was named the Gatorade High School National Player of the Year. "When you see great people do great things it's really inspiring. It's great to see what she has done.”
There’s lots of women who have excelled at high school soccer. Few played in development academies for years, fewer were playing in Uruguay when they were 17 and even fewer put up 34 points and a 10-minute hat trick in their lone season of varsity play.
It’s probably safe to say that only one of them did all those while being forced to don an elephant onesie and a tutu.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Is it worth it? I might go back to [the U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academy],’” she laughs. “That was awesome, especially because I wore a sign that said, like, ‘I’ve been trying to make the varsity team for three years, I finally made it,’ and there were freshmen walking around that [were] like, ‘Oh she must suck at soccer.’ And I was awesome.”
No one’s shy when talking about her talent, not even her. She’s quick to discuss how easily she improved as part of the U.S. National Team system, how quickly she adjusted her game when an entire team focused on denying her a single touch and how she told her high school coach even before kickoff that she was going to score that absurd hat trick.
Jones is underselling herself, if anything. She entered Duke as the second-best freshman in the country, and the first 10 games of her collegiate career underscored that. For just over a month, the burgeoning talent of the team seemed to be falling into place, led by one of the best midfield pairs in the country.
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An ACL tear was enough to cut that magic short just three ACC games in, though Jones was still tabbed to the All-ACC Freshman team at season's end, an honor that caught Jones off-guard but came as no surprise to Church.
Now, Church is far more effusive of Jones’ game, and in the span of less than a minute called her “unbelievable,” “a world-class talent,” “incredible” and “wishes [he] had three or four Sophie Joneses.”
Ella Stevens, who played with Jones on last year's team before going pro, couldn’t have spoken higher of her.
“Sophie is such an incredible person and player,” Stevens told The Chronicle. “She's so good on the ball and sees the game really well. No matter how frantic the game would get she was always the one who stayed composed, and that helped me a lot…. Her composure and maturity in big moments is probably what stands out the most, especially with her being a freshman.”
The connections between Jones and Stevens are fairy tale-esque. Both were Gatorade National Player of the Year winners, both were out-of-town recruits, both are outstanding talents at attacking mid and both were freshman starters, a relative rarity for Church.
Jones’ ACL tear cut short what could’ve been a spectacular passing-of-the-torch. But in presenting a roadblock, it only reinforced Jones’ greatest strength: her drive.
Power Five teams are littered with players who can outrun anyone another team could throw at them, pass with their eyes closed and preternaturally see the field. But not every player has what it takes to maximize those talents. Jones, who Church said “from day one, took charge of that midfield” and instantly “was very comfortable playing with older girls,” clearly has the mentality to push herself to be her best.
That disposition extends just as much to the rest of her life.
“[I’m] just putting in the work for my team and trying not to be the one to drag [our team GPA] down,” Jones said. “Also I just think Duke’s such an awesome place with so many interesting classes, and it’s not too hard to get motivated and I’m learning something every single day.”
But what’s more striking about Jones is how ingrained her drive to give back is. She has a laundry list of community service, but she doesn’t recite examples like she’d read a resumé. She recalls them vividly, revelling in the effect she saw herself having on others, unable to help herself from breaking into an enormous smile.
“I helped coach a girls’ team…just doing what I could there just to be a role model. Someone did that for me when I was younger, so that kind of inspired me to help coach that team,” Jones said. “The Special Olympics was an event put on by our school, and we're all paired with an athlete. Mine, her nickname was Ella Melon, she was adorable. Her event was walking the 400 [meters] and we walked next to her the whole time, cheering her on. She was really inspirational.
"And then other things like Riekes, [which] was a local gym where we just helped people work out weekly, and stuff like that…. My parents want me to give back and those are all things that I love to do—they’re connected to sports, they’re connected to my community.”
She hasn’t yet found organizations that fit her quite as well as those back in the Bay Area, but that hasn’t stopped her from helping the Durham Girls Soccer League clinics. Maybe, like many of Jones’ classmates, the girls there don’t realize they might be right alongside a future icon.
That’s the way Jones likes it. Her quiet star buds within a mild-mannered package that moves seamlessly from pitch to class and back to pitch again, as she strives to make the most of every opportunity she can.