Three of a Kindby Chad Bishop
Atlanta natives ending long playing careers together
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the story goes, Grace Jackson was the lone holdout.
Kaylann Boyd and Caroline Saltmarsh were all set to be Commodores. Jackson was wavering between the University of Georgia in her home state or joining her lifelong friends and teammates for the next phase of her career in Nashville.
When the time came to deliver the news, Jackson delivered a harsh blow.
“I remember calling Caroline (Saltmarsh),” Jackson said. “I called Caroline (Saltmarsh) and was like, ‘Hey, I think I’m just going to stay with Georgia. I’m so sorry.’ She tried to be nice.
“And then I was like, ‘Just kidding!’ She freaked out. I’m glad I came to Vanderbilt when I look back at it.”
It certainly wouldn’t have seemed right if Jackson would have broken up the band then. But the time for that moment is now inevitable for Vanderbilt’s senior trio as the 2019 season nears its end.
Jackson, Saltmarsh and Boyd have ran on the same soccer fields together for nearly 15 years.
“I’ve never done anything actually on my own because I’ve always had one of them alongside me,” Saltmarsh said. “I think that’s pretty weird to think about. I’m a little worried for myself.”
Bonded by Ball
The Boyd-Jackson-Saltmarsh trio all joined the Tophat Soccer Club in Atlanta around the age of 8. The friendship and sisterhood was almost instantaneous.
Road trips, sleepovers, birthday parties, games, practices, weekend tournaments, family outings – the three budding soccer stars did all of them together. And they stayed close through all the growing pains of adolescence despite attending different middle schools and high schools.
“It’s so fun looking back and knowing that we’ve been together for so long. Our relationship now is great. We’re super close,” Boyd said. “Our relationship has just gotten super close. I feel like we have definitely matured over the years. We went through a lot when it comes to the middle school age and all the weird drama that comes along with that.
“But thankfully we didn’t go to the same schools so that was kind of nice because we didn’t have to deal with school stuff together. We just had to deal with soccer and that was really it.”
Boyd, a forward from the Greater Atlanta Christian School, Jackson, a midfielder from The Lovett School and Saltmarsh, a midfielder from North Atlanta High School, became so close on and off the field that each agreed there seems to be some sort of telepathy that has developed between them over the years. Each member of the threesome has a knack for when and where their teammate will be for a pass, the timing of a developing run or a long cross before the opposition knows what’s what.
Few teams in the Southeastern Conference could claim to have three teammates as much on the same page as Vandy’s top trio.
“I know where (Saltmarsh is) going to go, I know what she’s going to do,” Jackson said. “I can pretty much guess her intentions so I can move a couple steps ahead of what I think is going to happen.
“And with (Boyd) if I’m going forward I usually know what she’s going to do with the ball and I know her passing. I mean, we’ve played like 15 years together.”
The Hard Times and the Good Times
Jackson, whose father Hardie Jackson played baseball at Vanderbilt in the mid-1980s, planned to play at Georgia despite consistent urging to be a Commodore by her father and her childhood friends. Her recruiting visit to Vanderbilt didn’t quite move the needle, however, and she was certainly leaning toward sticking with the Bulldogs.
Coaching changes, both at Vandy and Georgia, made Jackson reconsider. New Vanderbilt coach Darren Ambrose offered Jackson a scholarship and suddenly the Atlanta teammates weren’t breaking up after all.
But for a group of friends and teammates used to winning, they were about to embark on a less-than-ideal journey. The Commodores were in a rebuilding mode under Ambrose and their freshman season would test the bonds they had worked so hard to build.
“Freshman year we had a team meeting. And we had to call each other out in what we were doing bad at, basically,” Boyd remembers. “(Jackson) called me out and said, ‘You’re not working hard enough. You need to put in more effort like I know you can and like I’ve seen you do all these years.’ I was like, ‘You know what, she’s right.’
“It was one of those moments where you’re like I appreciate that out of her because of her honesty and integrity to be like, ‘Look, I know you can do better than this and I’m calling you out on this.’ She knew that I could handle it and she knew that we were on that page already together. I just remember that moment and being so thankful that I have somebody that can talk to me like this as a freshman.”
Vanderbilt has increased its win total every year since Jackson, Boyd and Saltmarsh stepped on campus, going from nine to 13 to 16 victories, respectively. The Commodores also went from five to six to eight wins, respectively, in SEC play the past three seasons.
At 10-3-1 and 3-2-1 in the SEC this fall, Vandy enters the final stretch of the year looking to make another postseason run. It will be the last time its does so with Jackson, Boyd and Saltmarsh wearing the black and gold.
“I cherish the hard times that we went through,” Boyd said. “My freshman year I wouldn’t consider us a great team, to be completely honest. Sophomore year we got better and then last year was just a great experience here. I felt like our class did a really good job of building that with the character and the mentality that we had just going through this process. I think it really did have a lot to do with our senior class.
“We did go through a lot of hardships our freshman and sophomore year. We fought through a lot of those hardships, but it came out to be this amazing experience.”
The Next Chapter
Vanderbilt hosts LSU (2-10-2, 0-5-1 sec) at 7 p.m. Friday and it’s then that Boyd, Jackson and Saltmarsh – along with their fellow senior teammates – will be recognized for their careers on West End. Next week the Commodores play their home finale against Texas A&M before ending the season with road trips to Kentucky and Alabama.
The SEC Tournament is scheduled for Nov. 4-10 in Orange Beach, Florida, and the NCAA Tournament starts the week after that.
Then, it will all be all over.
“All the seniors have been talking about, ‘What are you going to miss the most? It’s almost over,’ ” Jackson said. “I think the team bond is nothing like I thought it was going to be. I didn’t know what to expect coming to college. I heard from other friends who have played in college and they’re like, ‘It’s all different.’ I think our team is so close and we all look out for each other and we all care for each other. I think you could stick me in a room with anyone on our team and I would have a good time. I think that’s very unique for our team.
“These are the girls you spend every moment and that I’ve spent every moment with since I’ve gotten on campus. I think that will definitely be weird, not having a big group of 30 girls that I see every day.”
Boyd joked that she expects her, Jackson and Saltmarsh to all wind up back in their hometown of Atlanta when their time at Vanderbilt ends. But odds are graduate school plans and professional opportunities will derail that sort of wishful thinking.
So for now it will be about cherishing the memories that have already been made while making one last soccer experience last a lifetime.
“It will kind of be the first time we’ve gone through a new stage without having someone right there,” Jackson said. “Stepping onto campus it was like, ‘If I don’t have anyone to talk to I can talk to them.’ I think going forward that’s definitely going to be the weirdest part.
“I think we’ve gone through a lot of things together, especially the college process, which was difficult in everyone’s own way. But definitely having each other was nice. And especially coming to college already knowing people was a huge help for me. I hope it was for them.”