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Sleepy Hollow Native Selected in National Women’s Soccer League Draft

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January 23, 2021

By Tom Pedulla

Sam Coffey received the ultimate affirmation of her talent when the Portland Thorns F.C. chose her 12th overall in the recent National Women’s Soccer League draft.

The selection of the 5-6, 145-pound Sleepy Hollow native and current Penn State star capped a difficult journey often marked by setbacks and rejection. Not big enough. Not fast enough. She heard it all.

“Growing up,” she said, “I was pretty overlooked.”

There were times when her parents, Denise Willi and Wayne Coffey, wondered whether she could find it within her to persevere.

“There are a lot of players who are anointed as huge talents early on and they get invited to national camps and they get scouted and invited to United States soccer events,” said Wayne, a prominent sportswriter. “For whatever reason, that was never Samantha.”

Coffey recalled that, when she was 11 or 12, she was cut from an Olympic development regional team. “My response,” she said, “was to work and work harder.” She went on to score 100 goals for The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry.

In 2018, Coffey thought she was on a great course to be part of an under-20 United States youth national team bound for the World Cup. She and her invaluable trainer, Paul “Brooksie” Brooks, were practicing at Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck when she called to inquire when the next training camp would be.

It was an awful way to learn she would not be part of that prestigious national team.

“That crushed me. I have a vivid memory of hitting the ground as if I had been shot with bad news,” Coffey said. “It crushed me because I had given everything I had to that goal. To fall short of it so near to the time the World Cup was going to be happening was pretty heartbreaking.”

Brooks literally lifted her off the ground and dusted her off. She recalled that the two of them retreated to a park bench, each of them straining to comprehend what had gone wrong, gazing into the glittering water as if that body held the answers.

There is pain in the retelling of a setback so severe that it might have led a lesser young woman to turn her ambitions elsewhere. But Coffey speaks of it with immense pride.

“That really was a pivotal moment because it taught me all of the things that could be taken away,” she said. “It was one of the best things that could have happened to me.”

“I just learned so much from that experience,” she continued. “It really taught me not to try to run away from failure but instead to embrace it. It’s nothing any athlete wants is failure, of course. But it’s in moments like those that I’ve truly grown the most.”

Coffey and Brooks rededicated themselves to identifying any shortcomings and areas for growth. The result was a spectacular sophomore season at Boston College. She registered 17 goals and 24 assists in 40 matches and was honored as a first-team All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Midfielder of the Year.

She transferred to Penn State’s powerhouse team and made the adjustment to the Big Ten’s more physical style of play. She finished with 11 goals and 10 assists as a junior, ranking second in the conference in both categories. She was named first-team All-Big Ten.

Coffey is hard to stop because, although she is naturally right-footed, years of drills have made her equally adept with her left. “That’s something Brooksie really trained me from a young age,” she said. “Anything I’m going to do with my right, I’m going to do with my left, too. Your non-dominant foot can feel uncomfortable sometimes, but you definitely have to embrace that feeling instead of being afraid of it.”

Coffey’s greatest attribute, though, is an immense will to succeed that will not allow her to be denied in the end.

Her father said of the adversity she overcame: “The important lesson here is ‘Don’t let it define you.’ All of us have setbacks. We get rejected from jobs. We don’t make teams we want to make. We get rejected in our personal lives. Stuff happens in life. Samantha would be sad if she wasn’t picked but, you know what, she’d go right back to work. And that is really the key to everything.”

Thorns head coach Mark Parsons looks forward to having Coffey join his team, which has developed a strong following in Portland. He has described her as a “big difference-maker” and predicted that she was “going to have an immediate impact.”

For now, Coffey, an aspiring writer like her father, is focused on the spring season at Penn State as colleges find their way amid the pandemic following the successful completion of the football season. The highly regarded Nittany Lions have been given their schedule.

Coffey speaks hopefully of being part of a national championship, recognizing that her work is never done.


On The Hudson by Tom Sobolik

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