WHITEHALL — Chris Bascue recalls seeing Jake Morales walk 3 miles from his home to Whitehall High School with a backpack and a soccer ball, every day a couple of summers ago.
“I was coaching softball and I would see Jake walk in, do his drills for an hour or two, then he’d walk back,” said Bascue, who is a cousin of Morales’ stepfather, Jamie Huntington. “Everyone knows how dedicated he is.”
Morales’ dedication to playing soccer has been apparent for years, but the senior is a virtual unknown in local high school soccer.
Because Whitehall does not offer boys soccer, Morales has had to go out of town to pursue his chosen sport. He has played elite-level club soccer in Burlington, Vermont, for the last 4 1/2 years, plus national and international tournaments.
“It’s kind of hard because everybody doesn’t have a lot of belief in what I do, because there’s not a lot of soccer players here,” Morales said. “It’s definitely tough, especially just trying to find a place to play and the opportunities I’ve been able to find.”
That dedication paid off for Morales in a partial scholarship to play NCAA Division II soccer at Le Moyne College this fall. The Dolphins captured the Northeast-10 Conference title last fall.
“I always went to Syracuse (University) camps — they were off and on about me, but Le Moyne was always at those camps,” said Morales, who plans to major in business management. “The last time I went was the beginning of the year, they wanted to get me down for a visit and let me practice with the team. Le Moyne really wanted me.”
Morales, who turns 18 at the end of May, plays center midfield and forward for Synergy FC, an elite-level club based outside of Burlington. He travels an hour and 20 minutes, one way, four days a week to practice with the U18 team, plus a game or two on weekends.
“Our program is serious — it’s a big commitment,” said Hugh Brown, the director and coach of Synergy FC. “He’s commuting a long way, almost an hour and a half, so he’s done a good job managing his lifestyle and his academics for his commitment to soccer.”
“He sacrifices a lot, time with his friends and family,” said his mom, Sherry Vadnais. “He’s very disciplined, he knows what he wants and he’s determined to sacrifice to make it happen. Everyone is very supportive of him. His ultimate goal is to play pro soccer.”
Brown said Morales has progressed well.
“Jake is a very technical player,” Brown said. “Physically he’s very strong and fast. He’s an attacking center mid or plays up top for us. He’s very passionate, he gives it everything he’s got.”
“I’m fairly strong on the ball, I don’t lose the ball much and I’m quick off and on the ball,” Morales said. “I’m a very physical player — I can put a body on someone. I’m 5-8, maybe 165, but I go in with the mindset that no one can stop me.”
Synergy FC has partnerships with the German club Bayern Munich and Global Premier Soccer, the largest soccer club in the country.
“That gives our players access to a whole other level to play at,” Brown said.
GPS holds tryouts for national teams that represent the United States in international tournaments. Players are nominated to try out at the regional level, and those selected — about 300 in all — move on to the national tryout in South Carolina.
“The national team ranks players at the camp, and they ranked Jake No. 1 in that age group,” Brown said. “Out of all of the players, they pick 18 players for the national team.”
A year ago, Morales played in the Super Cup, a huge international tournament in Northern Ireland. During spring break last month, he played on the GPS USA U18 team in the GPS Valencia Cup in Greece, scoring three goals as his team became the first American club to win the tournament.
“It was the best experience,” he said. “Being able to play against top-level kids really gives me an idea of how good I am right now and where I need to improve.”
Later this month, Morales will play with Synergy FC in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Memorial Day Tournament in the Boston area. In early June, he heads to Long Island to try out in front of four Danish pro teams.
Lone soccer player
Morales was already pretty well-traveled growing up. Born in San Diego to parents who were in the Marines, Morales lived in Texas for about 10 years. After he finished fifth grade, his mother moved back to her hometown of Whitehall and got together with Huntington.
Morales started playing soccer at age 3, and following his older brother’s lead, he always played against older kids.
When he arrived in Whitehall, his only outlet for school soccer was playing on the Railroaders girls varsity team in seventh grade. Morales briefly transferred to Fort Ann in eighth grade to play school soccer, but chose to stick with club soccer — moving from Black Watch Premier in Albany, then to Rutland, Vermont, and finally to Synergy FC.
Being the lone soccer player at a football school made Morales a bit of a curiosity among his peers.
“People up here find it hard to believe that he doesn’t play school soccer — everybody plays high school around here,” Huntington said.
Morales did play a little football as a junior and senior, mostly as placekicker. He booted a school-record 47-yard field goal last fall.
“I actually played my junior year, I was running the ball and playing defense,” Morales said. “This year, I was cautious about playing because I still hadn’t committed to a college yet, so I just kicked.”
According to the Synergy FC website, tuition is $220 a month, so with the travel back and forth, it is an expense for the family. But Morales’ family has been supportive in allowing him to pursue his dream.
“It’s been some late nights, which is tough with two small girls,” Huntington said. “But I think of all the stuff my parents did for me — it’s not a sacrifice, it’s an opportunity for us to see him progress and move up.”
“We love watching him play,” Vadnais said. “The team is amazing, and his little sisters absolutely love him.”
If Morales has any questions about competing at the Division I or II college level, he only has to ask his stepfather. Huntington was a state champion heavyweight wrestler at Whitehall who went on to wrestle Division I at Drexel University.
“My concern for him when we started looking at colleges was the glass roof — there’s not a lot of opportunity for a small-school kid in a team sport,” Huntington said. “Wrestling is different, it’s such an individual sport. It’s very hard to get noticed in a team sport.
“And I’ve cautioned him, when you get to the next level, Division I or II, it becomes a job,” he added. “You’ve got to perform and do your best, or you lose your job.”
Morales understands this, but he also knows how hard he has worked to get to this point.
“You have to go through a hassle,” Morales said, “but it works out in the end as long as you put all of your will and everything towards it and work for it.”