Legend has it that, as a toddler, Jada Talley never crawled. She ran.
At just eight months old, she gripped a coffee table, pulled herself up and sprung her legs into motion.
The 19-year-old says it’s a true story, and while Arizona head coach Tony Amato is skeptical — “I have to do some fact-finding on that one,” he joked — he admits it wouldn’t be surprising.
Just watch her bolt up and down a soccer field. She’s a natural.
“Her speed is incredible,” said UA defender Sabrina Enciso.
And Talley knows how to use it. The 5-foot-9 sophomore has notched five goals in nine games this season, emerging as the Wildcats’ top goalscorer as they have gotten off to a 7-2 start.
Four of Talley’s five goals were game-winners, and on three of them, she outran a defender to a long ball, collected it, and calmly slotted it past the keeper.
“She’s just so dangerous,” Amato said. “She’s a player where if she’s had a bad touch or missed a chance, you know because she’s so dangerous with her pace, that she just needs to stick at it and can hit them at any moment.”
Talley’s speed catches defenses, and even herself, off guard.
“Somehow I just get to the ball,” she said. “I don’t know how sometimes.”
Enciso, who was also Talley’s club teammate with the SoCal Blues, has an idea.
“A lot has to do with her stride,” Enciso said. “She has very long legs, and as a forward, that’s very good to have, especially when she’s running down the line. She can beat many of her (defenders). ... A majority of the time, even in club, they double team or make sure that she doesn’t get space. So they stay tight, because as soon as she gets that space, she’s gone.”
Talley has left defenders, and a difficult freshman season, in the dust in 2018. Last year, she only scored one goal and was a reserve, stuck behind a senior-laden frontline.
And while Talley did show flashes of brilliance — she scored the game-winner in the upset at No. 13 Cal — she described her freshman season as “garbage.”
Talley lacked confidence, a common trait for freshmen making the transition from club soccer.
“That’s your biggest enemy — you telling yourself that you can’t do it,” Talley said. “Once you get over that, I feel like it just comes easy.”
Talley found her stride in the spring. She scored three goals in five exhibitions, giving her a much-needed confidence boost heading into her sophomore season.
Talley knew the team was counting on her to help fill the void left by the departing seniors, and those goals assured she was plenty capable of doing it.
“Tony relied on me more,” Talley said. “We did more film sessions, more focus on where he wanted me, we did drills after practice with ball placement where I would get the ball a lot in the box, and place it instead of trying to smash it up the goal all the time. So I think that helped a lot over the spring, too.”
That Talley, who chose Arizona over Texas Tech, San Diego and a few Ivy League schools, has become one of the best scorers in the Pac-12 is no surprise. It’s why the Wildcats recruited her so heavily, she says.
Talley was a prolific goalscorer with the Blues, one of the best club teams in southern California, and netted them in an all too familiar fashion.
“It was literally just run by people 24/7,” she laughed. “It’s not like anything’s changed. If you’re fast, you’re fast.”
But Talley isn’t just a speed demon anymore. She says she is sharper on the ball and has a better feel for when to shoot or pass. As a freshman, she said she was always looking to give the ball up.
She also credits her teammates for setting her up for success, like the time defender Hallie Pearson delivered a perfect long ball that led to a Talley goal against Cal State Fullerton.
“I just feel like my teammates know me so well now,” Talley said. “It’s year two. They know I like space on balls behind (the defense).”
As tantalizing as Talley’s skill set is (opposing coaches have approached her after games to compliment her), Amato thinks she still has plenty of room for growth.
Talley agreed, adding that the final piece to her game is improving her finishing. She has taken 33 shots this season — third-most in the Pac-12 — but ranks tied for seventh in scoring.
“You’ve seen a jump from last year to this year and I think you’ll see a jump from now until the end of the season,” Amato said. “She’s continuing to grow in training habits, continuing to grow in her mentality, continuing to get confidence and more comfortable.
“I know she’ll score some goals in Pac-12 play, and she’s only a sophomore, so I think she’ll just keep getting better.”