Oct. 15, 2004
By Elliott Finebloom
FSU Sports Information
When you talk to Florida State midfielder Jez Ratliff you can’t help but think about one word…evolution. More than her stats or records, it is her evolution as a player, a leader and as a person that stands out. Few players have matured as much as Jez has on and off the field during their four-year college careers.
The Norman, OK native came to Florida State as part of the nation’s eight-ranked recruiting class. Despite ODP credentials that included being called into the national team pool in 1999, all you heard about Jez was that she was fast. She was the player with pace.
“When you are trying to get recruited people always told me, whatever your talent is make sure the coaches know about it,” said Jez. “In high school athleticism was an asset for me and I played that up. There are a lot of people who are fast but it is how you use it. There are plenty of athletic players that never show on the field.
“The label never insulted me because I would rather be fast than slow but it does get redundant at times when people always say `she is just fast’. When I do skillful things my teammates still make fun of me but that’s OK.”
When Jez arrived in Tallahassee head coach Patrick Baker didn’t ask much more of Jez than just to be athletic.
“Freshman year I just tried not to mess up,” remembers Jez. “My freshman year, coach Baker only asked me to lead in fitness. He said `When we are running, always be in front’.
Each year the requests have gotten more challenging and that has required Jez to become a more complete player. Despite scoring five goals and recording six assists that first season, Ratliff dedicated herself to become a player that was known for more than just her pace.
“Jez has progressed so much as a player,” said fellow Oklahoman and best friend Camie Bybee. “As a freshman she was good but she has gotten better every year. A lot of that is due to her hard work. She has done individuals every year she has been here. She studies film. She works so hard and now she is one of the best players on the field.”
Statistically it may be hard to see Jez’s progress. She has been almost eerily consistent from one season to the next. She has scored five, six and five goals in each of her first three seasons and recorded six, five and seven assists. She recorded 16 points as a freshman, 17 as a sophomore and 17 again last season but don’t let the numbers fool you. Jez’s impact has far surpassed the one point she has added to her freshman total each year.
“Stats are only so important,” said Jez. “My stats have been consistent every year but my impact on the team and my role on the team have changed dramatically each year. If you ask my teammates about my importance as a freshman compared to the importance of my role today, they would say there is a big difference.”
The reason is that Jez is now a more complete player. She has always had the athleticism and skill but now she has mastered the mental part of the game as well. Over her four years of working with FSU head coach Patrick Baker, Jez has grown into one of FSU’s top tacticians on the pitch.
“Coach Baker has taught me a lot and raised my understanding of the game over the last four years,” said Jez. “I understand how the game is played now and how to break down other teams. Now it is just habit. There is a huge difference from my freshman to senior year. I know how to use my speed more effectively now because I can read the game at a higher level.
“I think I am also a more dangerous player now due to experience. As a senior playing in the ACC, you have seen it all. Nothing strikes you as new. You aren’t going to see any better players than you already have. Playing against senior All-Americans my freshman year is about as scary as it is going to get. Experience helps so much.”
That experience isn’t only helping Jez on the field. It is what has made her a team leader and one of three captains off the pitch. If you think Jez has grown on the field, she will argue that she has grown a lot more off the pitch and she attributes that to getting away from home and having to grow up on her own a little bit.
“As much as my mom would have liked to have me in her backyard, she knew I wanted to get away and experience something new,” said Jez. “I think she definitely appreciates that now because my leaving has made me a much more responsible person.”
Jez has become so responsible that her leadership has taken on all sorts of forms. She isn’t just rallying the troops on game day or keeping spirits up during three-a-days. She has become the source of information and advice on a variety of topics extending far beyond when the freshman should get in line for food at the training table and what clothes the squad will travel in.
“I think I have respect among my teammates because I have been able to balance all the aspects of my life,” said Jez. “Freshmen year was tough but I have grown up a lot in the last four years. I am somebody that hopefully people can look to beyond soccer. If my teammates have questions about school, or time management or how to open a bank account, I want them to come to me so I can try to help.”
Jez’s development as a leader has paralleled her development as a player. She is being asked to assume a much different role than just lead in fitness these days but just because coach Baker wants her to lead that doesn’t automatically mean people will follow.
“Throughout the years I have been called on to lead in different ways, which just comes with experience,” said Jez. “Now I am being asked to lead in a lot of different areas. Not because I am a captain but because of my involvement with the team.”
It is that involvement with the team and in the athletic community at Florida State that is one of the main reasons Jez is respected. She is a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and in that role she is a go between for her teammates with the Florida State athletic administration. Due to her involvement with SAAC, she also helps coordinate the Golden Nole banquet and freshman orientation, two high profile events in the lives of FSU athletes.
“I am involved with SAAC because I felt it was a good opportunity to have a chance to be around athletes from other sports,” said Jez. “It has been a great experience. We do the Golden Nole event and freshman orientation. It has been nice to be involved with freshman orientation and I think it helps our freshmen each year to have a fellow soccer player there.”
Jez is also a two-time member of the ACC Academic Honor Roll and that is the balance and well roundedness that her teammates and fellow FSU athletes look up to. It is the main reason she has become one of the most influential student-athletes on campus and a leader among her team.
“I think Jez is a great leader,” said Camie. “She leads by example on and off the field. People look to her to see how she reacts. She also balances the different aspects of her life so well. Others see that. They also follow her because she cares so much about everyone.
“I know I come to her for advice. She gives great advice. She has been through four years of college life and has learned from that. On the field Jez is a really smart player. Younger players are drawn to that. She always seems to know the right thing to say.”
If anyone knows Jez it is Camie. The best friends have known one another since they were 11 years old and got in trouble for putting Kool-Aid in a showerhead at ODP camp in Norman. They came to Florida State as friends but will leave as best friends. They didn’t sell themselves as a package during the recruiting process but they are both thankful they came to Florida State together.
“I think we have gone through a lot together,” said Camie “She is my best friend. I can go to her for anything. She has really pulled me along at times both on and off the field. Whenever I feel like I might lose it, she is always there to keep me positive. She tells me what I need to hear even if I don’t necessarily want to hear it. I wouldn’t have changed anything about our decision to come to FSU and play together. If we had gone to school apart, the experience would have been so different. I am really glad we made the decision to come to FSU.”
“Camie and I have been through too much not to be friends,” said Jez with a slight laugh. “We have so many shared experiences. We come from the same place and at the end of the day she is the closest thing to family I have down here. I have lots of good friends at FSU but at the end of the day she is the person I know is thinking the same thing I am thinking. We have kept each other here through some rough times that had nothing to do with soccer. We have been there for one another and that has helped.”
Jez always knew that she wanted to go away and experience something new when it came time to go to college but that didn’t make it any easier leaving her mom. Gayle Ratliff is a single mother who raised Jez and her brother on her own. Jez’s relationship with her mom is a special one but Gayle never stood in Jez’s way when it came to leaving the Sooner state. A job made tougher by the fact that Gayle not only works at the post office in the OU student union, Jez’s mom is the skybox manager at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
“I think as much as I loved OU and Norman, I always knew I wanted to go far away for college. It was just something I wanted to do,” remembers Jez. “My mom didn’t want me to be a Sooner because she knew it wasn’t what I wanted. I felt bad when I decided to go so far away rather than go to a Big 12 school. She knew this is what I wanted and she wanted me to be happy. If I never score another goal in my career, she will still be proud of me and that is really important.”
If you ever seen Gayle’s Seminole soccer shrine at the Oklahoma University post office, you’d have no doubt just how proud Gayle is of her daughter. She is a constant topic of discussion at the OU student union as she may be the most talked about non-Sooner athlete east of Cedric Benson.
“She (my mom) sees so many students every day at work and many of them are athletes sending stuff home to their families,” said Jez. “My mom is a talker and she has a ton of Florida State soccer pictures up at the post office. That starts a lot of conversations with all the athletes she knows at OU.”
Gayle isn’t able to get to many Seminole games due to her weekend duties at Oklahoma football games but Jez’s mom has found ways to keep tabs on her daughter’s career. Gayle Ratliff may be the original Internet soccer mom despite the fact when Jez left home she didn’t even know what email was.
“Before I left for college my mom didn’t know how to use email or the Internet,” remembers Jez. “She only knows how to use email because once I left she thought she better learn so she could keep in touch with my brother and me. I set her up with an email account and she has expanded on that knowledge. Now she is one of the most informed Internet soccer moms out there.”
But it would be a huge misrepresentation to boil Jez’s relationship with her mom down to cyber parenting. Although they are far apart today, Jez’s love for sports and the success she has had in all areas of her life are due to her mother and Jez can’t help but continually give her mom the credit for where she is today.
“She (my mom) has always been a huge sports buff,” said Jez. “Raising me and my brother on her own she tried to be interested in what my brother was doing. She got into all the sports and that sucked me in too. I was watching March Madness when I was six years old. It was always a big part of what was going on at the house.
“My mom isn’t blessed to be here every weekend and see every game but she is a diehard fan and follows through the radio broadcasts and live stats. She is definitely, along with my brother and grandmother, the most important person in my life. I turn to all three of them but my mom hears most of the bad stuff that I can’t tell my brother or grandmother. She listens to my problems.”
As hard as it has been for Jez to be away from her mom, she has not ever regretted the decision to come to Florida State and can’t help reflecting back six years and the prophetic conversations she had with some future teammates while traveling through Europe as part of the Olympic Development Program.
“I knew Amber (Tollefson), (Kristin) Boyce and Summer (Corum) from ODP and knew they had already committed to Florida State their senior years,” recalls Jez. “On ODP trips I found out that Marion (Cagle) would be going too. Knowing those players were committed to Florida State and listening to them talk about playing for a National Championship and going to the final four was inspiring. Even as a senior in high school Amber was saying that to Camie and me when we were in Europe. It always seemed like a good idea and I kept it in the back of my mind as I took other visits. After all my visits FSU just seemed like the right fit.”
That European ODP group sat around and discussed how this five-year old program that had never won anything would one day be in a College Cup. It may have seemed a little farfetched at the time but when you have a saleswoman as persuasive as Amber Tollefson telling you it was going to happen Jez couldn’t help buy into it. So it was pretty special five years later when five of those same players lined up in the same starting line-up in the national semifinal at the 2003 College Cup.
“I stepped back earlier this year and thought about everything that has happened since freshman year, I realized how well this decision worked out,” said Jez. “I just think about when I was a junior in high school and talking to Amber and Boyce about FSU. Amber was a senior in high school and she already had her FSU gear on. We all knew something special was going to happen here. To see that actually happen is amazing. I couldn’t of asked for any more.”
Jez couldn’t have asked for anything more but her coaches and teammates have asked for more and more from the former `pacey’ midfielder each year. She has never failed to deliver.