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Sam Coffey: Embracing the Unexpected

“I think those tend to be some of life’s most special experiences - the ones that you don’t see coming.”

Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics

“That night was so crazy,” said Samantha Coffey. “That week honestly was so crazy. I didn’t even know that being drafted was going to be a possibility probably until a week before, maybe not even a week before.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Women’s Soccer League waived registration requirements for the 2021 NWSL Draft, meaning all Division-1 players who had exhausted three years of eligibility prior to the 2020-21 academic year could be drafted.

“Coach Erica [Dambach] here, our head coach at Penn State, the living legend herself, called up seniors and was just like, ‘hey guys, so there has been a little change in how the NWSL does things,’” said Coffey. “‘There’s a chance that you might hear your name called,’ and we were all like, ‘but we didn’t declare’ and she’s like ‘it doesn’t matter.’”

Coffey and her teammates were shocked by the rule change and still didn’t have a great grasp of what the new NWSL Draft rules meant. Regardless, Coffey began to hear rumors about which NWSL teams may be interested in selecting her.

“I didn’t even know my plans for staying for the fall or not at that point so I was like, ‘okay [I’m] going to let go of this - let’s see what happens,’” she said. “If I get called awesome but if not, it’s still my dream to play pro and it’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen.”

Coffey was in Happy Valley, PA during the draft. The 2021 NWSL Draft was to occur over Zoom so she and her teammates talked about organizing a watch party to celebrate what could be a very special moment.

However, Coffey spent her special night in her room by herself. Three of her roommates contracted COVID-19 prior to the draft and everyone in the house quarantined in their individual bedrooms.

“I’m like ‘okay, so no watch party, no parents, no family, no one,’” said Coffey. “‘Um, I guess I will watch it alone on my computer, in my pajama set!’ And that’s exactly what I did. And it was such an incredible but… not at all how I expected it to happen, type of experience and I think those tend to be some of life’s most special experiences - the ones that you don’t see coming.”

Coffey was selected with the 12th overall pick of the 2021 NWSL Draft on Jan. 13, 2021, by Portland Thorns FC.

“I kind of just tried to just focus on the experience and… how big of a moment it was and not focus on what number I am or any of those things that don’t really matter at all,” Coffey continued. “But just how this is like my dream becoming reality and then I get a call from Mark Parsons and he and I talk. He asked me if I want to be a Portland Thorn and I’m like ‘uh… yeah I would very much enjoy that!’”

Parsons and Coffey spoke on the phone before she was officially drafted. The Thorns coach and Coffey spoke about when Coffey might join Portland. The Penn State midfielder was still undecided on whether she would complete her collegiate eligibility and wondered if her answer would play a role in whether or not the Thorns would select her. But the next thing she knew, her name was called and she was going to be a Thorn.

“The anticipation leading up to that moment and getting ready to hear another pick,” said Coffey, “and another pick and your heart rate rising and then dropping again and a little bit of hope and maybe some disappointment that it’s not you. It was a roller coaster and I could have never written it up that way and I think that’s something that’s really cool. I think in the moment I’m like, ‘oh why aren’t I at a draft’ and you get the whole speech moment and you get to be there with your family. And I mean that’s just one incredible story I’ll tell that I think will be a good one but the emotions in that tiny single bedroom of mine were definitely heightened.”

Coffey’s draft night was definitely not what she might have expected when she dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player but there is something special about the unique way things happen.

“I think we were in preseason at that time,” she continued. “We were about to play college soccer and I’m so confused but it was incredible and again, at the end of the day, no matter that I was in my PJs and in my room and alone and with my parents virtually it was still 100% a dream come true and even though it happened in a different way I think it kind of made it all the sweeter.”

Prior to the pandemic and before the draft, Coffey thought that she might play overseas after college but when the Thorns came calling she couldn’t turn it down.

“I had heard that they of all the clubs were interested in me. I was like, ‘whoah man me? Like what?’ And that kind of just shifted things in my head,” said Coffey. “And I didn’t know if it was going to work out that way or if I would end up going to them but there was definitely a little light bulb that went off when I heard that news. Definitely, some excitement sparked within me, and [I] kind of had my fingers crossed during the draft that it would hopefully be them and here we are.”

Just as draft night unfolded differently than Coffey expected, her college career to this point has as well. She achieved her dream of being drafted last January but she is still competing collegiately, completing her eligibility at Penn State.

Coffey played her freshman and sophomore seasons at Boston College. She scored 17 goals and provided 24 assists and was named ACC Midfielder of the Year and a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist in 2018.

Coffey entered the transfer portal after her stellar 2018 season and was eventually contacted by Dambach. Coffey decided to transfer to Penn State to get out of her comfort zone and keep improving.

“At BC I was a true 10 in the sense that I only attacked and never defended and I was half of a player,” said Coffey. “I have Penn State to thank for the fact that I am no longer that. I still would always choose attacking over defending but Coach Dambach and the entire staff here and my teammates have just changed the way I play, and my mindset in defending, and have made me whole, honestly. They have 100% prepared me for this next level of soccer that I’m about to embark on and I’m so thankful for that.”

Coffey continued to play as an attacking midfielder at Penn State in 2019 but she was given more defensive responsibilities. These responsibilities increased exponentially in the strange season that was the 2020 women’s college soccer season.

Penn State was dealt a series of injuries. Two center backs went down and Dambach was forced to reposition players to fill the gaps in the team. One of the players who was required to drop deeper was Coffey.

“Then here, especially last season, I was a true six,” said Coffey. “[The coaching staff] would at times give me a decimal point. They would say ‘you’re a 6.75 today’ to give me a frame of reference for how high up on the field I could get because, knowing I’m an attacking player, they didn’t want me to get too excited and too carried away and find myself in the 18 or something.”

Coffey had played in the defensive midfield role in a few camps and filled in there occasionally throughout her career. But never to the extent or at the level she did last year for a Nittany Lions team that won the Big Ten regular season title and lost to eventual finalists Florida State in the NCAA Tournament.

The experience was unexpected but it continued to help Coffey grow as a player. This season Coffey is back in her familiar No. 10 role but believes that she is a much more complete player thanks to her time as a defensive midfielder last season.

“Looking back retrospectively, I’m grateful for that experience,” she said. “I think, to the point I just made about becoming a whole player, that was an experience that taught me so much defensively and added to my arsenal as a player. I think the fact that I can play anywhere in the midfield, and especially in a role that’s so much more defensive than it is attacking, was just a really great addition for me.”

Despite Coffey’s growth as a two-way midfielder, she still loves to get forward and thrives in the final third, whether she is finding the back of the net or slicing open a defense with her incredible range of passing. In fact, Coffey found herself on SportsCenter blistering a free kick into the back of the net.

Penn State were down a goal to #18 Wisconsin in Madison and needed a goal. Coffey stood over the ball and smashed a free kick into the back of the net to equalize. The Nittany Lions went on to win the match. Ryan Snyder, the PSU women’s soccer Assistant Director of Strategic Communications, submitted the video of Coffey’s free kick and it was included in the SportsCenter Top Ten the next day.

“I had a couple of people text me and I was like, ‘really? Um, I didn’t even think that they watched women’s college soccer,’” said Coffey. “I think I read a stat that like ESPN or SportsCenter covers like 5% women’s sports and like 95% men’s sports but that’s beside the point. We don’t have enough time for that discussion.”

“So I was like, ‘okay, that’s cool,’” she continued. “But I couldn’t find it anywhere so I was like ‘am I being lied to? Did this actually happen?’ I tried to watch it again and I still couldn’t find the link. No one could find it so I was like, ‘okay, oh well maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t’ but then [Snyder] found the clip and finally sent it to me. I was able to confirm that it did happen. I still think it’s a little dramatic. It was a good moment for the team but I was like ‘okay, I don’t know if it warrants being a Top Play.’ I’m sure there were plenty of bangers but it was definitely really cool to see that and to get Penn State soccer on national TV. It was a cool moment.”

Coffey consistently scores stunning, Top Ten-worthy goals but she is even more dangerous when she creates space and unlocks defenses with brilliant passes that render the opposition’s defense useless.

“One thing that our coaches here always tell me is just, find the space,” Coffey said. “Wherever the space is, if it’s wide, go wide, if it’s in seam two as we call it - so between our opponent’s backline and their midfield - make your home there. Just find the space and get comfortable in congested areas…”

“The vision side of things is something I’ve always felt has been a part of my game,” Coffey continued. “I’ve always been able to see plays develop and see things that maybe one wouldn’t see just watching the game. But my vision is something I am definitely always trying to improve whether it’s through watching soccer religiously, which is something I do, or watching my own game film and seeing moments where I could play quicker, or maybe I played someone who had a defender on them​​ when I could have played someone who was wide open. Again, it’s these parts of my game that are ever-evolving and stuff that the staff and players here at Penn State have helped me grow so much with.”

Coffey’s statistics speak for themselves. She has the second-most points among active players and is closing in on becoming a member of the elite 40 goals and 40 assists club. But Coffey didn’t even realize she was approaching this elite milestone. She just wants to help her Nittany Lions win games.

Penn State has been riddled with injury again this season and has had some great wins as well as some devastating losses. The Nittany Lions are in unfamiliar territory but Coffey is confident that her team can turn it around and challenge for titles down the stretch.

“I almost like that people are counting us out,” said Coffey, “because we play best with a chip on our shoulder and when our backs are up against the wall and when we have people who are doubting us so that’s kind of exciting and fun to go prove people wrong.”

Coffey’s draft night and her college career have been anything but traditional. They have been unexpected and unconventional, but as Coffey said, “those tend to be some of life’s most special experiences - the ones that you don’t see coming.”

There is no telling what is coming for Coffey and Penn State as they continue their season and soon Coffey will join the Portland Thorns to start another unfamiliar journey. Unexpected moments will come and they are sure to be extra special. There is a lot of uncertainty in life but Coffey’s determination, love of the game, and care for others are integral to who she is and are what has made and will continue to make her special.

“I’m just going to give it my heart and soul,” said Coffey. “That’s just how I do things. I’m relentless. I don’t care how many times I get knocked down or how many times the team gets knocked down. I give my all to this game and to my teammates and to our team family and that’s going to be the case in Portland.

“I am an all-in type of girl and I always will be. I love this game. I love the teams that I’m on. I love to serve the people around me however I can. Whether that’s lifting them up or hyping them up when they score a banger or whatever it is. I think what [Portland] needs to know about me is that I’m just going to give it everything I’ve got and I will pour my whole heart into being the best Thorn that I can be and the best teammate that I can be, the best player that I can be and the best person I can be.”