In 2015, James Jacobs was looking forward to his first season on the Mattituck High School varsity boys soccer team as a backup goalkeeper to Kyle Makely on the Class B state champions. As a freshman, he was ready to pay his dues. Freshman goalkeepers traditionally wind up on the sidelines, soaking up the experience.
Then something happened.
Two weeks prior to the season, Makely moved to South Carolina, which left Jacobs as the No. 1 keeper.
Talk about getting thrown into the deep end of the pool.
Instead of sinking, Jacobs is on the verge of completing a four-year high school career soon that includes 65 starts, assumed to be a school record. Given that freshmen hardly tend goal regularly, that could be a Suffolk County, a Long Island or even a state record.
“It’s just luck,” Jacobs said of the opportunity to play so early.
“He grabbed the bull by the horns,” coach Will Hayes said.
In his varsity debut, the 6-foot, 195-pound Jacobs backstopped Mattituck to a 2-1 overtime victory over Riverhead, making nine saves on Sept. 4, 2015.
“At first I was nervous,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be nervous? A freshman playing varsity level sports. I was filling in shoes for a state championship team, a state championship-winning goalkeeper. After the first game, after the first couple of games, I was getting the feel of it. It was just adjusting to the physical level of varsity. It was a lot different from playing kids my age. I’m playing kids three years older than me. It’s all about learning. Once you get the hang of it, you’re good.”
Hayes has seen Jacobs grow into the role after a few bumps on the road, which was expected.
“He was utterly fearless,” he said. “The only reason it worked the first year was he wasn’t afraid. He had the size. He didn’t necessarily have the tools. He made mistakes, but he learned from his mistakes. He was the backbone of a team that really wasn’t very good, but they could defend capably. He was at the heart of that.”
There were awkward moments. Here was a freshman, shouting instructions to players sometimes three years his senior. In the high school, that’s unheard of.
“Goalkeepers are supposed to be loud, the loudest guy out there,” Jacobs said.
Slowly, but surely, Jacobs refined his game.
“I’ve improved manning [the] 18-yard box,” he said. “It’s mine, nobody’s allowed in there. Coming out for the corner kicks, defending set pieces, I’m way more active off my line. Even when the other team is playing through balls in, I’m always off my line, ready to come out and pick up a ball.”
Jacobs has been one of the major reasons why the Tuckers are 10-6 overall and 9-3 in League VII.
“Over the course of four years, he has had his ups and his downs,” Hayes said. “But when there’s a big game and there are points on the line, James is the guy you want in the goal. His maturity, his ability to speak up and own the box and commanding his defense is something we’re really going to miss. In the last four years we’ve been able to call on him when the chips are down.”
A friend’s mother convinced Jacobs to play for the Mattituck Arsenal as a fifth-grader. And, as has been the case with many goalkeepers, Jacobs was “drafted” to guard the goal.
“We needed a goalkeeper and I got thrown into it,” he said. “I wasn’t experienced at all, never played soccer before.”
His role model was his sister, Marissa, who played goal and sweeper for the Tuckers squad that captured the 2005 Class B state championship.
“I do remember her having gloves,” he said. “The fact that you could save the game, I thought that was cool. I liked the pressure as a goalkeeper.”
Jacobs has recorded a 37-27-11 career mark.
He rarely has been a spectator. As a freshman, he was forced to the sidelines due to a yellow card for a penalty-kick offense. Defender Dan Fedun donned goalkeeper gloves in a failed attempt to stop the PK in a 6-3 defeat to Southampton. Jacobs returned seconds later.
Jacobs missed a 2-1 loss at Center Moriches Sept. 17 because of a red card with three minutes remaining in a 2-0 defeat to Babylon and was forced out of the 3-0 home victory over Greenport due to an ankle injury two minutes into the second half Oct. 9. He was in for the opening minutes of the 5-0 win over Pierson/Bridgehampton Friday, participating in his 20th career shutout, tying Cody Huntley for the school record.
“It’s rare for a goalkeeper to have that many, but it’s rare for a goalkeeper to play over 60 games in their career,” Hayes said. “He’s come into his own this season as a leader. He’s a captain. I’m proud to have played a role in his development, but his ability in the net is all him. It’s been fun to coach him.”
In a 1-0 loss at Babylon Oct. 5, Hayes saw Jacobs at his best.
“I thought that was one of his finest games because he commanded the box on defense in a way he hasn’t in recent memory, and his ability in the net,” he said. “If we go far in the playoffs, he is going to be called upon.”
As the very last line of defense, a goalkeeper’s life can be lonely. Yet, Jacobs knows he is only as good as his back line, praising it, particularly center backs Bryce Grathwohl and Chris Nicholson.
“Our defense is always up for every game,” he said. “I love my back line. Chris and Bryce, I couldn’t ask for a better pair in the center backs. Bryce is an athlete, played club with me for years. We have chemistry. Chris Nicholson, the most insane athlete I’ve ever met, the fastest kid I’ve ever met.”
This has been Jacobs’ most enjoyable season.
“I see a huge difference in this team compared to the last three years,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys. They all come to practice and they work really hard. They all just want to win. The guys are really paying attention and they really know what they’re doing.”
With the Tuckers’ resurgence — they’ve won seven of nine games — Jacobs would love to end his career on a high note.
He remembered the excitement when Marissa and the girls team returned with the state championship trophy from upstate, given a special escort by the Mattituck Fire Department. As an eighth-grader, Jacobs attended the 2014 celebration at the school when the boys came home with their third state title with fire engines in tow while “We Are the Champions” was played.
“It was really cool,” he said. “I wish we can do that.”
The Tuckers must jump through several hoops to accomplish that, beginning with the Suffolk Class B semifinals on Oct. 24.
“I’m excited for it,” Jacobs said. “I’m hoping to get to see Babylon again. I think we can bring a good game to them. I’m just really focused on the next game, hoping to get a W.”
Several more Ws could lead to upstate Middletown, the site of the state championships.
Said Jacobs, “That would be so great.”
Photo caption: Senior goalkeeper James Jacobs has started 65 career games for Mattituck and been involved in 20 shutouts. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)