NCAA women's soccer: Transfer Sam Coffey looking for growth on and off the pitch at Penn State
These days, Sam Coffey can locate every national coffee chain in Centre County, home to Penn State. She can probably even provide turn-by-turn directions and save you the battery drain on your phone.
That last part would have come in handy for her in January. And not just in searching for a cup of joe. Newly arrived in Pennsylvania at the time as a second-semester transfer from Boston College, Coffey spent her first days on campus searching for the right buildings. And soon thereafter searching for places to charge a phone exhausted by navigational hiccups.
She was an All-American women's soccer player, a Hermann Trophy semifinalist and a U.S. youth international. None of which stopped her from losing her bearings.
"I'd walk around campus and try and put on this facade of knowing where I was going," Coffey said. "Once I realized that asking questions wasn't a sign of weakness, I found my way eventually."
It isn't altogether unlike the way she found Penn State in the first place.
As the ACC Midfielder of the Year a season ago at Boston College, judged the best at her position in what is traditionally the best conference in the sport, Coffey's decision to transfer singlehandedly reshaped the upcoming season. Penn State, the only program outside the ACC and Pac-12 to win a national championship in the past 13 years, is again best positioned to break up the coastal stranglehold with Coffey added to a roster that returns its three leading scorers from a year ago.
But the question she asked herself before upending her life last December wasn't about the best place to win a title. It was a deeper question: Where could she find peace? As a kid, Coffey's daily diary entries were often written in the form of letters to God and sometimes delved into her guilt in feeling anything but happy. At Penn State, she found an opportunity to grow as a player. And for her, growth offers peace.
"There is no part of me that regrets my time at B.C.," Coffey said. "I still do love B.C. and I'm really grateful for the way I was able to grow there. I don't think I would be where I'm at currently in my career without the experiences and without the awesome times and the challenges.
"But I can never be comfortable. I can never settle for feeling like I'm comfortable in a certain place in my career. It took me those two years there to kind of figure that out and to realize that it wasn't about anyone or anything really about the program. It was truly about myself and the way that I was feeling and what I felt I needed to pursue these huge dreams that I have."
That Penn State coach Erica Dambach was checking the NCAA transfer portal last December speaks to the new reality for college coaches. The online database allows athletes more autonomy in exploring moves without a final commitment.
The increasing frequency of transfers in recent years may have removed some or all of the stigma that once accompanied players on the move. Dambach's first reaction these days is to think about how any potential transfer might help Penn State rather than about what problems might have caused a player to leave her former school.
She still didn't expect to see a name like that of Coffey, whose 12 goals and 14 assists last season placed her alongside UCLA's Ashley Sanchez as the only players in a major conference with double digits in both categories. Coffey also joined Stanford's Catarina Macario, North Carolina's Alessia Russo and Sanchez as the only sophomore Hermann semifinalists in 2018.
Dambach emailed Coffey that night to open the lines of communication. Then she went about researching the person behind the accolades. That included canvassing Penn State players who played with Coffey on U.S. youth national teams. Among them was current junior Frankie Tagliaferri, also the striker that Coffey will presumably line up behind as the attacking midfielder this season.
The fact that she's her worst critic is what's made her successful. But ... that can also be a player's demise if they can't get the right balance in their own mind.Penn State coach Erica Dambach on Sam Coffey
"She's just a very approachable person and a player," Tagliaferri said. "When she played midfield and I was up top [for the U.S.], if I had question, it was very easy to talk to her. Or off the field, she's always joking around, having fun."
Tagliaferri then texted Coffey and encouraged her to visit Penn State. As most players would, Coffey wanted to know about team chemistry. But she also had another question.
Did the coaches have a plan?
"That was something I know Sam wanted," Tagliaferri said.
Coffey was a decorated player coming out of high school. The daughter of sportswriter Wayne Coffey, who co-authored Carli Lloyd's 2017 autobiography, she was far from anonymous. But distinct from the likes of Sanchez or recent college stars like Andi Sullivan and Morgan Brian, who came up through the U-17 national team and for whom stardom was all but a given, Coffey's stock has likely climbed more in two years than that of any other player in the country.
"She wants to be the best in the world, and her ability to take in feedback is as good as anybody I've coached," Dambach said. "She's going to watch [video], she's going to take notes on it, then she's going to come in and ask questions and she's going to change it. That's the sign of a really high-level player."
But perhaps it's not always the healthiest approach. During spring practice with Penn State, coaches had to all but force Coffey to see anything positive in her own performance.
"For her, she wants all the negatives and she wants to fix it all," Dambach said. "I just don't operate like that as a coach.
"The fact that she's her worst critic is what's made her successful. But as we all know, as the stakes get a little bit higher and the environment gets a little bit tougher, that can also be a player's demise if they can't get the right balance in their own mind."
It is not unfamiliar territory for the decidedly introspective 20-year-old.
Coffey's religious faith is central to her identity. She described the greatest joy she gets from soccer as using her gifts -- both the talent and opportunities -- to honor God. In a speech to a Christian youth group two years ago, reading at times from some of her diary entries, she talked about searching and even struggling for balance until she accepted that emotions like sadness and frustration were just as fleeting as joy. It was OK to feel all of them.
"I accept and acknowledge that I am a completely blessed 18-year-old girl who has been given a life better than I could ever, ever pray for," Coffey recited from one diary entry. "But I also accept and acknowledge that I am an 18-year-old girl who has demons, who has dark thoughts, who has baggage and who has dark feelings. Both of those things are OK."
The next step for her as a player will have something to do with improving her defense and learning how to play with Tagliaferri in front of her or alongside box-to-box midfielder Shea Moyer. Growth will have more to do with maintaining that same peace of mind as an athlete.
"Especially as a footballer, I feel a lot of different emotions at different times," Coffey said recently. "Sometimes it's frustration and sometimes it's overwhelming joy and whatnot. But none of those things are permanent, at least in terms of those emotions -- happiness and sadness and frustration or grief or whatever it might be."
One of the most talented young soccer players in the country, she is navigating toward an unknown destination. That's how life works, sans GPS. It isn't as easy as finding a coffee shop. But she is sure that the path that leads through central Pennsylvania is the right one.
"There's not a doubt in my mind that I was supposed to be at Penn State," Coffey said. "And that this is the place I'm meant to be at and where I'm meant to grow."