A lot of kids aspire to reach the highest rung on the sports ladder, but only a handful makes it even halfway up. Even fewer reach the top of the ladder.
Mackenzie Gress is certainly not one of those.
In fact, Gress, the Lyndhurst High School sophomore, is just about at the pinnacle of the soccer world.
When Gress started to play soccer as a little girl, she was already a rare breed. She felt totally comfortable right away as a goalkeeper.
“I played for the Lyndhurst Recreation travel soccer team,” said the 15-year-old Gress. “I played half the game in the field and half in goal. But I really liked being a goalie.”
It didn’t take long for Gress to realize that she wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill net minder. Her athletic ability carried her far and beyond other girls her age – and even older.
When Gress was 13 years old, she went to a tryout with a top developmental youth soccer program in the state called the TSF Academy in Wayne.
TSF Academy perennially features some of the top youth soccer players, both boys and girls, in the area. Prospective youth soccer players travel far and wide to get a chance to play for one of the TSF teams that are age appropriate from ages 16 and under.
At that point, Gress knew that her soccer career was about to take off. It has been a complete whirlwind from the simple background of Lyndhurst travel soccer to the national scene.
“That’s when it all started to get real,” Gress said. “That’s when it started to be high level.”
From there, Gress was selected to play for the New York City Football Club Academy, then the United States Development Academy.
“It was a good outlet for USA Soccer,” Gress said. “There were talent scouts there watching us. Only three goalkeepers were going to be called to the (14-and-under United States) national team. It was in such a short period of time. I was so overwhelmed that I might get a chance to play for the national team.”
So two years ago, Gress went to the first-ever United States National Team camp for the 14-and-under players in Norco, California, the first step toward selecting the final U.S. National Team that was going to play in the 14-and-under Women’s World Cup in England.
“There were 48 players at the camp and I thought that was a lot,” Gress said. “I thought there would be only 24 or so. It was my first experience on the national level and I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I was really nervous. I was new to the scene. I hate to say, but I was definitely shell shocked.”
But it was a good learning experience for Gress, who knew that she had to improve her game if she wanted to play for the U.S. National Team and play on the college level.
“Those were my dreams,” Gress said. “I always wanted to play college soccer and I dreamed of playing for the national team. If I really wanted to do that, I had to be more consistent.”
There was only one problem. Gress’ dreams of playing at the highest level meant that she could never play for her native Lyndhurst High School soccer squad for beloved coach Kim Hykey and the rest of her closest friends.
“I always grew up wanting to play for Lyndhurst and to play for Coach Hykey,” Gress said. “I was the ball girl for Lyndhurst games when I was little. I thought that was going to be the epitome for me, playing for Lyndhurst High School. Some people didn’t understand that I was playing at such a high level. They didn’t realize that it’s a 10-month-a-year commitment.”
So Gress still attends classes at Lyndhurst, but cannot play for the Golden Bears.
“In the beginning, it was sad, but then I got to see the opportunity I was getting to play for the (United States Development) Academy and the greater opportunity,” Gress said.
Gress now regularly plays for a club team called STA based in Morristown with other top players.
Last December, Gress went to a showcase in Florida where the United States U-14 team was to be selected to play in the World Cup in England.
“I felt like I was really prepared,” Gress said. “I felt like I was at the top of my game. I felt like I was on the brink of breaking in.”
When Gress returned home, she received the good news that she was selected to be one of the goalkeepers for the United States National Team.
“All my hard work for the past two years had paid off,” Gress said. “When I got called, I knew I had worked hard. I dreamed about that moment.”
In January, Gress played in goal in two games, a full game against England and a half against Denmark, both of which were victories for the United States.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Gress said. “Walking onto the field and hearing the National Anthem with the USA crest on my chest. That’s something I always dreamed about since I was a little girl. They were my first international caps. It might have been my first, but it definitely won’t be my last.”
Gress’ activities with both the U.S. National team and her club team STA have been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. She continues to train on her own and when she can with social distancing, she heads to FASST, the respected training facility in Lyndhurst.
“It’s been hard,” Gress said. “I was just in England and then I get back and everything is cancelled. I was riding high and everything comes crashing down. I am able to stay in shape thanks to FASST. I think I’m in better shape now than before the coronavirus.”
Gress has been doing weight training on her own and other exercises recommended by USA Soccer.
“I’ve also been running a lot,” Gress said. “I’m also watching a lot of soccer, watching my past games. I might not be training on the field, but there are a lot of little things I can do to stay sharp.”
All Team USA national matches have already been canceled for the rest of 2020. Gress hopes to play for STA in the fall.
But Gress has now got her first taste of representing the nation and wants to do more of it in the future. At only 15, her future is extremely bright and she’s already given a verbal commitment to attend Penn State University in three years.
“Everything has happened so fast for me,” Gress said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d be where I am. I now can’t be anywhere else. This is just the beginning.”
Lyndhurst native Mackenzie Gress earned a spot on the first-ever United States 14-and-under National Soccer team that recently played in the World Cup in England. Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Gress
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”