By CHIP CIRILLO
When Michael Jones was growing up in Africa, he played soccer barefoot with limes and oranges on roads and dirt fields.
Adjusting to American soccer with a real ball and cleats was difficult, although it didn’t take long.
The Grace Christian Academy senior forward has piled up 125 goals and 43 assists during his three-year career.
Jones and seven of his siblings moved to Thompson’s Station from an orphanage in Sierra Leone in 2013 when he was 14.
Soccer is very popular in the small country on the West African coast.
“But they don’t have any money to buy gear or shoes or soccer balls,” Jones said. “It was really hard getting used to (American soccer) because when I came here I had to learn everything over again. I didn’t really know how to play the game because playing with the lime was so much easier than playing with this big ball and wearing shoes was something strange.”
Getting used to the offside rule was the most difficult adjustment because in his pickup games in Sierra Leone the players had free range.
“I came here and I was like, ‘What are they even doing?’” Jones said. “I was called offsides so many times. In one game it was like 15 times or something. And I’m like, ‘Coach, I don’t know what I’m doing on the field. What am I doing?’ And he’s like, ‘Just keep playing, you’ll get it one day.’”
Playing with limes and oranges in tight areas on the streets helped Jones develop good ball control.
Adjusting to the cooler climate in Tennessee was another challenge. Back in Sierra Leone, just north of the equator, the temperature often goes above 100 degrees with high humidity.
“Sometimes when we are playing, I’m like, ‘Coach, I’m cold’ and he’s like, ‘You’ll be OK,’” Jones said. “The weather and the food, everything is so different. Some days it’s extra freezing.”
Jones speaks good English now, but that was another challenge, especially during his early years in the U.S.
He burst into high school soccer with 48 goals and 13 assists as a sophomore during GCA’s final year in the Middle Tennessee Athletic Conference.
The Lions moved into the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association during his junior year when he scored 31 goals and had 14 assists.
The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Trevecca signee has 46 goals and 14 assists this season.
“What makes Michael a really good player is his speed and his ball control,” GCA coach David DeFatta said. “What makes him great is his passion to be excellent. He really never stops working on skills.”
DeFatta said Jones has elevated the success of GCA’s soccer program by pulling his teammates along with him.
The Lions are 9-1-1 this season with their only loss coming against Brentwood Academy on March 16.
GCA went 14-6 last year, falling to eventual state runner-up Christ Presbyterian Academy in the Region 6-A/AA semifinals.
When Jones was a sophomore, the Lions capped a 15-1-2 season by winning the MTAC title.
The speedy scorer has led GCA to a combined 38-8-3 record the past three seasons.
“He’s the best player on our team, the best player in our program, but he’s making other players better,” DeFatta said. “He’s set a great foundation for the future of our program by what he’s been able to do.”
Jones leads the nation in goals on the MaxPreps scoring leaders this season.
“If he has the ball on our attacking third of the field, we have a chance to score, so he’s a pretty remarkable player,” DeFatta said. “I honestly don’t know that you get to coach a player of that caliber more than once in your life.”
DeFatta said Jones can run faster with the ball than most players can without it.
GCA goalkeeper Alex Nordhoff (55 saves, four shutouts) faces Jones every day in practice.
“It’s a little intimidating, but I can deal with Michael,” Nordhoff said. “He’s really agile and the way he moves the ball really fast is confusing sometimes.”
Junior Austin Amor (seven goals) plays alongside Jones on the forward line.
“Trying to keep up with him — that’s probably the hardest part of my job to just stay within his pace and try to put out as much effort as he does in the field,” Amor said. “(His conditioning) is ridiculous. He’s just on a completely different level than everybody else when it comes to conditioning. He runs harder than everybody else.”
Amor said multiple defenders guard Jones and some try to grab him.
Jones tries to move left to right or diagonally to find open space when opponents man mark him.
Eighth-grade midfielder Alex Johnson tries to get the ball to Jones as much as possible.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that I’ve seen who can actually keep up with him,” Johnson said. “We each have our own job and Michael’s is goal scoring in the attacking third.”
The scary thing for GCA opponents is Jones has eight younger brothers, including two stepbrothers. All of them play soccer except for one who is a piano player.
Junior midfielder Samuel Jones (seven goals, 12 assists in 2016) and the rest of his brothers play soccer in the back yard nearly every day.
“Every single thing (Michael) does, I want to do,” Samuel said.
Malachi Jones, a GCA Middle School midfielder, said Michael is constantly working at his game.
“If he’s not doing homework or helping to mow the lawn, he’s out there kicking the soccer ball, booming it as high as he can to work on his touches,” Malachi said. “And we are always there to try to see what we can do to improve our skills like he does.”
GCA is a second-year TSSAA program, so its strength of schedule isn’t as difficult as more established programs, but Jones has proven he’s good enough to earn a college scholarship.
He scored four goals in a 6-0 win over William Blount on April 8 at the Smoky Mountain Cup.
“His greatest asset is he’s so fast,” William Blount coach Ryan Ferrell said. “We haven’t really come up against anybody with that kind of speed this year. I told my players that he was so fast if we got in a foot race, he was gone. We weren’t going to stop him.”
Jones enjoyed one of his most productive games in Thursday’s 8-3 win at East Hickman when he scored seven goals and added an assist.
CPA scouted GCA at the 2016 District 11-A/AA championship when the Lions lost 2-1 to Fairview.
“I remember just watching him for a good 10-15 minutes and looking at my assistant coach and saying, ‘All right, we’re in trouble. We’re going to have to do some adjustments,’” CPA coach Tom Gerlach said. “This kid, he was lightning fast. And there were two of them (including Samuel). It was a one-two punch.”
CPA moved forward Chip Omer, now a Tennessee running back, to defender to mark Michael Jones.
“Chip was one of our fastest guys, a big guy,” Gerlach said. “(We told him) just don’t let him get behind you. We can’t let that kid get the ball at his feet and get behind us because he’s going to be deadly.”
Gerlach also put a priority on denying him the ball and it worked as CPA won 5-0, becoming one of the few teams to keep Jones off the scoresheet.
“He made an impact on all of us: the coaching staff and the team,” Gerlach said. “He’s kind of like the total package because he has quickness, speed, technical skill and he’s a finisher, obviously. Trevecca got a great catch on this kid.”