College Cup Q&A: Jaelin Howell

Jaelin Howell has been critical to Florida State’s success in the midfield, leading the Seminoles to the ACC Tournament title in the fall and helping the team reach the College Cup. Howell has started 14 games in the split 2020-21 season, producing five goals and two assists but also helping to secure nine shutouts.

On Wednesday afternoon, Howell and Malia Berkely were named two of three finalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy, which is presented by the United Soccer Coaches and the Missouri Athletic Club on Wednesday afternoon. Berkely signed with a French club after the fall season. They are two of three finalists, joined by Brianna Pinto of North Carolina. Howell and Berkely mark the third and fourth MAC Hermann Trophy finalists in school history, joining Mami Yamaguchi and Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Yamaguchi took home the award in 2007.

Howell and the Seminoles now face Virginia on Thursday at 6 p.m. (ESPN2) in the College Cup, the Final Four of women’s soccer. In this interview with the Osceola, Howell discusses what the Seminoles are doing during the extended downtime of the NCAA Tournament in Cary, N.C., the challenges of the split season and what traits and similarities she sees in the 2018 national championship team that this season’s team also has.

It sounds like the players have tried to organize some Wii tournaments, games and other activities to help pass some of the down time as you are in the controlled environment. How has that helped when you’re not on the field practicing or playing?

Howell: I think the staff did a great job at setting up different things that help us kind of take our mind off of soccer and off of COVID, being in the bubble and just giving us new opportunities to kind of be an environment where we can team bond. So we did the ping-pong tables and Wii. We did a ping-pong tournament but we have not crowned a champion yet. We’ve been doing trivia. We’ve had some champions with trivia. But we haven’t crowned the ping-pong champion yet. We’re in the final four right now, ironically. I think we got LeiLanni (Nesbeth), Lauren Flynn, Heather (Payne) and Jenna (Nighswonger). My money is on Leilani.

You were on 2018 team that won the national title. And obviously this team has an understanding of how to get to a College Cup. Do you see qualities and parallels between that team and this team?

Howell: I do. I had a different role. That was my freshman year and obviously now I’m kind of in a more leadership position and I’m also an upperclassmen. So it’s also a different perspective, seeing both teams. And this isn’t just these two teams but just the professionalism and professional mindset going forward each game and this year being so different and it’s kind of weird obviously with COVID and everything. The discipline part and the professionalism and staying focused and following the protocols. And it goes on and on. This team has done an amazing job with that. So I think this year in terms of that has been even harder than 2018 year just because you’ve had to be more focused, more dedicated and more professional than ever before. I think we have a really great chance just because of that. Now with a week left we’re on the final climb and I think that with what we got and what we have shown we have a good chance.

The ACC decided to play in the spring and coach Mark Krikorian opted to play spring exhibition games against NWSL pro teams like Orlando and Louisville, men’s teams and a match with Florida. Did that big-picture strategy of how to structure the split seasons help prepare you for the mental and physical challenges of the NCAA Tournament?

Howell: It not only started last fall, but before the fall when quarantine first happened. We all had to go our own directions and we had to stay in constant communication with each other, making sure that we were keeping up with our fitness and our touches and things like that. Overall it had to start before the fall and our team did an amazing job with that as well. And I think that going forward, through that in the fall I think it was easier to do that just because we were already in that routine. Obviously in the fall, we had a great season. In the spring, playing professional teams just helped us accelerate into our season even more.

You’ve played three teams with different styles in the NCAA Tournament. Penn State scored an early goal and FSU had never trailed in the fall. Duke, it seemed, wanted to send the game to penalty kicks and wasn’t aggressive on offense. Did games like that challenge you and strengthen you for the College Cup?

Howell: I think so. Talking about this it seems like honestly a lot of other teams haven’t had the challenges that we’ve had in playing these great teams and going down a goal against Penn State, who’s a great team and having to fight back. And obviously a very good Duke team who was sitting back and we had to try to break that down and then persevere in PKs. There’s a lot of lessons learned and going through that adversity early I think is really good because then if you have to face that later on it’ll be a lot easier for us. And kind of getting that experience for all of us and especially the younger players just to feel that pressure and know what it’s like before we head into the College Cup.  

FSU played Duke in the fall and again in the quarterfinal. And the Seminoles played Virginia in the fall but will face them again in the College Cup. Did Duke change that much? Has Virginia changed that much?

Howell: We obviously know that every team’s going to come out and give us their best, because we do have a target on our back being a No. 1 seed, being undefeated at this point. I think that each team’s going to change their formation and tactics based on that and kind of saw that change with Duke from the fall until now. We’re not really sure what Virginia is going to do but I think we’ll be prepared for anything and we are preparing for anything.

There’s an unpredictability and pressure to the penalty kicks. But how good was it to see Cristina Roque come up with the stop on the first Duke attempt and then give you the added confidence of being in the driver’s seat?

Howell: For sure. Our team is very, very good at PKs. We knew that this tournament might come down to that. And we have all the confidence in the world and our keeper Roque and our penalty kick takers. That’s just kind of what I told the team is we had to have confidence in each other and confidence in Roque because we ultimately knew that we did that and just stepped up there with confidence that we’d be Ok. Roque is only a freshman, but she plays like she’s a senior. She’s very calm, cool and collected in the goal. And she showed that with making that save early on. I think it gave confidence to the rest of us taking our PKs. And it just shows that one save made the whole difference.