BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
ROCHESTER HILLS – Jackson Craft had no problem making the varsity as a freshman at Rochester Adams.
The talented rising soccer star ended up starting and playing almost every minute of every game at center back, only finding the bench late in games that were already decided and that only happened a couple of times during the Covid-shortened campaign of 2020.
Things were going just fine as a sophomore, as Craft was set to start in the Highlanders’ backfield once again. He started the season opener – then things turned the corner for the worse.
Craft – whose father John Craft also starred for Adams and helped win the Highlanders’ first league championship in 1993 in the old Metro Suburban Activities Association – suffered a right hip injury during the opening weekend of the 2021 season and teamwise the injury count started to mount for the Highlanders early in that campaign.
Instead of anchoring the backfield again, Craft found himself on the bench with a limp and Adams stumbled that season with a revolving door of injuries. The Highlanders finished 6-10-3 with a 2-0 Division 1 district semifinals loss to Utica Eisenhower, but Craft did make a return to the lineup in the postseason.
“That was really tough being out for almost the whole season,” said Craft. “We had high hopes for my sophomore season, but we had a lot of injuries.”
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Last season Craft was asked to make a position change which turned out to do wonders for the Highlanders’ offense. He was shifted from his natural position of center back up to forward and he was near-brilliant. The Highlanders were unranked in the preseason before breaking into the Division 1 Top 15 polls in Week 2 and began to gain some traction. Adams -- which was ranked seventh last season entering the postseason and has been bouncing around the rankings or honorable mention last this season -- more than peaked at the right time late in the 2022 campaign.
Craft finished the campaign with a team-best 24 goals with 11 assists for a team that finished 17-1-6 overall and in fourth in the Oakland Activities Association Red Division at 2-1-4. More importantly, Craft, who entered the postseason with 17 goals and eights assists, helped the Highlanders catch fire and go on to capture a district and regional championship, advance to the Final Four and eventually stake claim to the school’s first Division 1 state championship since 1999. Craft collected seven goals and three assists in the postseason run and scored two goals in the state semifinals and a goal in a 2-0 shutout of then-previously-unbeaten and third-ranked Rockford in the state championship match.
Veteran Rochester Adams coach Josh Hickey, who has now coached four Final Four teams in his career (2009, 2014, 2015 and 2022), joked around about Craft’s move from center back to forward last season.
“He made us look kind of stupid. I say that jokingly, but it was ‘how didn’t we see that (offensive skill) when he was a freshman?’ He had an incredible year for us last year playing up top. He has that ability to get behind you and he can just finish. He is always so dangerous with the ball.”
Craft reaped the benefits of his individual efforts and team results in 2022 – earning All-OAA Red Division, All-District, All-Region, All-Oakland County, All-Metro Detroit, Division 1 All-State First Team, All-State Dream Team as part of the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Association top 11 players overall, and to the Michigan Soccer Network’s Super Team as a top 25 player overall.
This season he was listed to the MSN Top 45 Field Players To Watch list and is also on the national list for the High School All-American game which will be held in Charleston, S.C., on December 9 of this year.
Adams returned 13 players this season and four starters – six starters graduated and classmate and fellow All-State Dream Team selection John Coon departed to play in the MLS Next system – but the cupboard was far from bare back in August.
“I think we can be very good again this year,” said Craft back in August during the first week of tryouts. “We still have a lot of very good players back and we want to go as far as we can.”
Craft said in the preseason that he will entertain the idea of playing collegiate soccer if the right offer comes across from the right school academically.
“I’m not sure if I will play yet. I’ll wait and see if anyone recruits me or if (a particular school) school is the right fit for me,” noted Craft. “I’ll just go out there and play hard and do what I can do and maybe (the recruiting) will happen.”
The uber-talented and versatile Craft is on the radar of NCAA Division I Western Michigan University and neighboring Oakland University amongst others. Craft, who also plays club soccer for the Michigan Stars Elite, hopes that more conversations from college coaches will take place after the 2023 campaign. As of late September, only three Michigan high school players have committed to NCAAS Division I programs ,although a couple of dozen players are being recruited by D-I programs.
Craft ended up missing five games this season during the middle of the campaign due to an injury and the Highlanders again suffered a revolving door of injuries in 2023 much like the 2021 season. Adams has gained most of those players back in October. The Highlanders still finished 10-7-1 overall and 3-4-0 in the OAA Red Division, good enough for a fifth-place tie with Troy in the loaded league. That again was with some starters missing a few key league and non-league games, including a 4-0 loss to eventual OAA-Red champion Oxford back in mid-September..
For the postseason this year, Rochester Adams is again in the same district with Utica Eisenhower, Utica and Romeo, all which are having very good seasons, plus Utica Ford, Rochester and Rochester Stoney Creek, the later two with young rosters and in rebuilding mode.
Last season Adams downed Eisenhower 5-2 in the Division 1 district finals before making their gauntlet-type run through the rest of the field to capture the state title. Adams even defeated then-top-ranked Troy 4-3 in a shootout in the regional semifinals and followed that up with a come-from-behind, 3-2 triumph over 2021 D-1 state runner-up New Baltimore Anchor Bay in the regional finals.
Craft, despite missing some key games, has always drawn the opposition’s top defensive marking back this season and in some cases is double-teamed due to his offensive prowess, crafty play and finishing capabilities. He enters the postseason with 12 goals and eight assists and will again be a key cog in the Highlanders; engine if they are to advance deep into the postseason.
“He is better than last year,” admitted Hickey via a recent text. “He just missed a bunch of games due to an injury. He has 12 goals and eight assists (playing tough competition). Last year he had 17 goals when the playoffs started.”
Now healthy, Craft and the Highlanders want to make sure that last year wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
“We still have some very good players back from last year,” noted Craft. “I think we can make another run. I know it will not be easy. You have to believe. Last year we believed in each other and we got hot (at the right time) and won it all.
“Obviously we are really proud of what we did last season,” continued Craft. “We had high hopes for a good season. Nothing will be handed to us. The intensity is high. We have a lot of young talent and a lot of returners that went through (the battles) last year. Chemistry is always really big part of the team. I think with this team specifically we’ve known each other forever. We’re like family. Knowing each other so well and knowing our playing styles, not being selfish, is a really big part of this team. That was one of the big reasons why we were so successful last season and that’s why we hope to be successful this (postseason).”