‘Team Mom’ Salina Williford Brings Experience To Penn State’s Midfield
Salina Williford initially didn’t want to go to school in her home state of Pennsylvania — that is, until she took a visit to Penn State.
“I actually didn’t want to go in-state ’cause I had lived in Pennsylvania my whole life, so I wanted to go somewhere else,” Williford said. “Then I came up here on a hot summer day at the end of August  and we beat West Virginia 5-0. I toured the whole school and I literally just fell in love.”
The redshirt senior midfielder from Wayne, PA, captured Erica Dambach’s attention early in her career at the Players Development Academy in New Jersey — one of the country’s premier travel teams that counts Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly as alumnae.
Penn State boasts four PDA products on its current roster alone, with Frankie Tagliaferri, Becca Hamilton, and Bristol Pizzuto joining Williford, a Conestoga High graduate, in the prestigious system that supports clubs ranging from U-8 to U-18.
“She had tremendous versatility,” Dambach said of Williford as a prospect. “We saw her in the midfield, we saw her on the back line. She had very good ball striking technique and was a good leader.”
Dambach had no idea Williford’s mother attended grad school at Penn State at the beginning of her recruitment, but it wasn’t long before the Nittany Lions surged to the forefront.
“We were so excited when we finally got her on the phone,” Dambach said. “It became clear to us very quickly that Penn State was right on the top of her list. We didn’t know her family was such huge Penn State fans.”
In a midfield loaded with talent, Williford is the team’s most experienced contributor. She’s started four of seven contests this season, rotating in alongside Emily Ogle, Charlotte Williams, Marissa Sheva, and Laura Freigang.
“Sheva and Frannie [Crouse] and all of our wide players are workhorses,” Williford said. “We have a lot of mobility. Sheva can play everywhere on the field. If I happen to go outside, she can fill in for me.”
Sheva was by far Penn State’s breakout star of the non-conference slate, tallying four goals in the first three matches of the season. The return of Freigang, who missed the first two games to represent the German U-19 team, provided a nice boost for the Nittany Lions. Her technicality over the ball is something to behold.
“[Freigang’s] final pass is like something I’ve never seen before,” Williford said. “I’m really excited to have her back and play with her again. There are a lot of good combinations between all the midfielders.”
Redshirt junior outside back Maddie Elliston gushed over Williford’s importance to the program and her glowing personality during downtime.
“She’s the team mom,” Elliston said with a smile. “If you’re hanging out, Salina’s there. She unites the team in a really positive way. I love her family. I just love who she is at the core.”
Williford made an immediate impact in State College as a true freshman in 2013, starting 17 of 23 matches for Dambach’s squad. Her best offensive season came the following year as she posted five goals and five assists. An untimely injury sidelined Williford, though, for the entire 2015 national championship run.
She enjoyed an impressive bounceback campaign last fall, recording a goal and two assists, and is hungry for another chance at glory in her final season.
“Even freshman year, I remember Sauce was super sneaky, just had a way of driving at players, playing nice final-ball passes,” Elliston said. “I think she’s a really smart player too. We’re lucky to have her in the eight role.”
In soccer, a central/attacking midfielder is ideal for the eight. Williford and the Nittany Lions further solidified themselves as the top team in the Big Ten following their emphatic 3-0 victory Thursday to open conference play.
Freshman Kerry Abello, who’s listed at all three field positions on the roster, caught Williford’s eye from the start of training camp with her rarely-seen skill on throw-ins.
“We’ve never had a flip thrower in the years I’ve been here,” Williford said. “It’s definitely different setting up for it. We have a whole different set piece. But I think it’s the coolest thing ever. It’s like you have a cross.”
No. 8 Penn State (5-2) returns to Jeffrey Field Sunday at 1 p.m. against Illinois.