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Sam Coffey: The Spark For Penn State Women’s Soccer

On a pristine, blazingly sunny Sunday afternoon at Jeffrey Field, Penn State women’s soccer was in trouble.

In a lapse of defensive concentration with just 44 seconds on the clock, the Nittany Lions conceded a goal from a long throw in. Goalkeeper Kat Asman picked the ball out of the net as her teammates looked around in confusion.

The early goal set the tone for the entire first half. The Nittany Lions were sluggish, their passing was off, and they looked shaky — vulnerable to the James Madison’s counter-attacks and speed upfront. Star winger Frankie Tagliaferri had scored a penalty seconds before the break, but a Penn State win, or even a draw, against a 1-4 opponent seemed anything but assured. Something, or someone, was missing.

Enter Sam Coffey.

Two seasons at Boston College established Coffey as an undisputed all-star in the world of college soccer. She started 20 matches for the Eagles as a freshman in 2017, notching five goals and ten assists as a center midfielder. The next year, she tallied 12 goals and 14 assists while making it to the semi-finals of the MAC Hermann Trophy voting, in which college coaches vote to name the player of the year.

Then Eagles head coach Alison Foley resigned last December, and nine days later, Coffey announced that she would join the Nittany Lions with two years of collegiate eligibility remaining.

Coffey’s arrival in Happy Valley sent ripples through the world of college soccer as fans and opponents realized that Dambach would be adding both a regular youth national team call-up and a top-ranked recruiting class to an already-stacked squad.

“I know she is probably the biggest/most surprising transfer from D1 this year,” said a fellow Division I midfielder who has never played with or against Coffey. “I’ve heard about her a decent amount.”

If James Madison’s squad hadn’t heard of Coffey, they would be familiar by the end of the match at Jeffrey Field. She was introduced in the 46th minute, and momentum immediately shifted. The midfield settled as Coffey, dealing with a slight injury, sprayed passes and tracked back. The team’s restored confidence was enough to boost midfielder Ally Schlegel to yet another goal and Asman to a crucial penalty save, sealing a 2-1 win for Penn State.

“You can tell she’s nursing something, but she’s still there, and she still gave us a big bump,” head coach Erica Dambach said after the match. “We needed her, and she stepped in and gave us a big boost today.”

Coffey arrived in Happy Valley last spring and quickly fell in with her Penn State teammates.

“Sam is just, Ugh,” Schlegel said with a happy sigh earlier this season. “Sam came in and just blew everybody’s socks off.”

Coffey plays with an intensity that can shift the tide of a match completely, as it did against the Dukes. With her sleeves often rolled up to her shoulders, her wrists taped, and her long hair flying behind her, she is a furious tornado of artistry and engine.

When she dribbles, she doesn’t put her head down and drive. Her eyes stay lifted as she drifts, almost skipping, across the grass, always ready to slip a pass or take a shot. Moments after she’s sent a shot over the bar or slightly under-hit a pass, she’s sprinting into her own team’s penalty area to make a tackle.

She’s already formed a creative partnership with forward Frankie Tagliaferri, a former youth national teammate.

“We went to a few camps together so that was definitely good to, like, get to know each other, and she was really big in helping me come here, like she reached out,” Coffey said. “I think we complement each other well.”

Coffey’s scored four goals and recorded three assists for the Nittany Lions ten matches into the season, including this left-footed curler, assisted by Tagliaferri, against Michigan State last Sunday:

Coffey’s offensive productivity and ability to cover ground have undoubtedly boosted Penn State. But working in tandem with the creative chaos of her play is an equally important calm confidence and toughness. She can calm a jittery midfield as effectively as she can spur a lethargic attack.

Her poise is one of the first things team outsiders notice about Coffey. She speaks evenly, without hesitation and with measured optimism when discussing her own play, her decision to leave Boston for State College, or the difficulties of playing 90 minutes in the most demanding positions on the field.

“Once we got our rhythm I had no doubt that we were totally able to beat this really good team,” Coffey said after the win over James Madison.

This is due, in part, to her faith, which as ESPN’s Graham Hays pointed out in a preseason feature on Coffey’s transfer, is as integral to her identity as a player as her goal and assist tallies. Her game is packed with meaning.

After the Nittany Lions’ season-opening loss against Stanford, Coffey stood under the heavy August humidity, her hands and wrists stained with blue ink. Covering the tape that wrapped her forearms and drifting down onto her hands were meticulously written words and phrases. Philippians 4:13, her late grandfather’s initials, AO1 (Audience of One), and “Joy” crowded the white, slightly fraying, strips.

“Regardless of the result, it was a ton of fun,” she said after the Stanford match. “I can’t wait to get back out here on Sunday.”

But the taping and words don’t represent a pregame ritual that Coffey relies on to perform.

“Some people say they do it because they need to feel in control, but I don’t think I need to do anything to feel that way, I think if you believe in superstitions you have to rely on something else to play your game,” she said of the common locker-room routine that many players rely on. “I want to be consistent and I don’t need to kind of rely on something. And that goes into my faith and believing in God.”


The Nittany Lions began the season ranked No. 6. After a loss against Stanford, an away draw to West Virginia, and three wins, it seemed as if they’d raise, or at least retain, their top-ten ranking. But due to a combination of injury woes, bad luck, and momentary lapses of concentration, Penn State now finds itself with four home losses, including a dropped Big Ten opener against Michigan, and has fallen out of the top 25. The road to a conference championship and a deep College Cup run looks less certain than it did in August.

Sunday’s win against Michigan State broke the Nittany Lions’ losing streak resoundingly. But if they want to continue pushing forward, they’ll need to rely on a core of veteran leaders to weather the schedule that lies ahead.

Coffey has already become a figure to rely on for her teammates, especially those with whom she shares the center of midfield. Freshman defensive midfielder Cori Dyke plays just behind Coffey and has been a regular fixture Penn State’s starting lineup this season, especially in the absence of the industrious Shea Moyer. She and Coffey have formed a formidable partnership that, when they click, is unbeatable.

“[Coffey’s] been awesome, we have lots of great conversations together, after games, before games, just about solving different situations,” Dyke said after the Virginia match. “Moving forward, obviously there’s a lot to work on, but I think we have built up that relationship really well to be able to solve different things.”

This aspect of Coffey’s game and personality has been crucial, especially when it comes to supporting her new teammates. Many of them are playing their first collegiate matches this fall.

After Schlegel’s late equalizer against Virginia was canceled out by an even later winner for the Cavaliers, Coffey left the field with an arm over the shoulders of one of her younger teammates, nodding slowly as they walked back toward the tunnel together in silence, their cleats shuffling over the divot-filled grass.

“You can totally rely on her for everything, but even her personality off the field,” Ellie Jean, co-captain alongside Amanda Dennis and Kaleigh Riehl, said. “She just really fits in right with our program, right with our ideologies, right with everything we believe in.”


The season’s outcome depends on how leaders like Jean, Riehl, Dennis, Tagliaferri, and Schlegel inspire their side to continue to rise to the level it’s capable of reaching. But in Coffey, they seem to have found a fellow warrior they can count on to help embolden their squad.

“She’s a true leader, on and off the field, just a spark and a personality,” Dambach said. “I think the most important thing is she brings a joy to every training session and she wants to get better.”

When the Oklahoma State Cowgirls scored a double-overtime golden goal to upset Penn State at Jeffrey Field, Dambach’s squad stood in dejected silence, still in a position to defend the corner kick. After a somber alma mater, Penn State players trudged off the field, past their celebrating opponents and into the darkness of the tunnel.

Coffey was the last player to leave the field. She was alone, with her blue team backpack slung over her shoulder and her cleats still on, as she approached the touchline. As taillights crossed University Drive behind her, she looked up toward the now-empty stands. She was still looking up, her head held high as if searching for and then recognizing something in the floodlights when she disappeared from view.

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.

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