Through the goal scorer’s eyes
Sam Phillips sees things that others don’t.
She feels things, too – things that lesser players aren’t prone to register when they have the soccer ball in the goal box, and have to make a double-quick decision.
She sees the opposing goalie anticipating a shot to the right. She feels the thrust of the opposing player’s elbow in her left side as that defender tries to cross her face to secure an angle and take away the possibility of a blast from her right foot.
And, she sees the other defender closing in from the right, ready to box her in.
At a standstill, Phillips has a hard time explaining how she sees these things; how she senses, like in the aforementioned situation, that if she switches the ball to her left foot the one defender marking her will suddenly be out of position. Or, that the goalie – who is so sure of the shot to the right – will all-at-once be out of position too, and that the charging defender won’t have a chance to make a play on the ball, either.
The typical prep player isn’t usually comfortable with their non-dominant foot, much less gutsy enough to switch to that foot in the midst of a scoring run. The safe play would be to force the shot on goal from the right, even though the goalie and the other two defenders are expecting it.
But Sam Phillips, like other great goal scorers, isn’t ever typical.
When she does switch the ball to her left foot and fires in the opposite direction, she’s doing it because she sees a high-percentage shot, because she feels the over-pursuit of the defense and because she senses the goalie’s predisposition.
“At first, it’s conscious. I have to think that I’m not going to get a clear shot going through the girl,” Phillips says when asked about her thought process on this particular goal scoring chance – one that she has converted more than once this season.
“It’s just common sense to see the play. Mostly, it just happens. It’s somewhat instinct, but the skills are more important than instinct. Just feeling the ball and having ball control and seeing the field. Most of the goals, they just happen.”
If you are to look at Sam Phillips’ gifts as a soccer player, you understand that the goals – 18 of them so far this season – don’t just happen.
They happen for a reason.
“There’s the difference between a skill player and a player that just happens to have raw talent,” Devils coach Daiva Katieb says. “Sam, she happens to have both. She hones her skills by working hard in practice. She’s one of our hardest workers – always one of the first, or second person, finishing all the sprints. She does all the ball control skills and she works hard to gain those skills. But, she was also just blessed with exceptional talent. You can see that when she pulls through. This past game (against James Irwin) they were triple-teaming her and she still came out with the ball.”
Phillips also scored twice, and had one assist, which is why the Devils are moving on to face Kent Denver on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the first round of the state tournament, and why the Jaguars’ season is over.
Born to score
It’s too easy to say that Phillips was just blessed by the soccer gods to be a prolific goal scorer. More to a point, she was blessed with a passion for the game.
The footwork that she has mastered came as result of being addicted to playing soccer, not just on the soccer field, but in her kitchen, or her dining room, or while brushing her teeth.
“When I was younger, I would dribble the ball around my house everywhere,” Phillips says. “I would make sure nothing touched it. I would go all over the house, in-between chair legs and stuff, but never touching anything. The only thing it could touch was me and the floor and that was the game I played with myself all day. I’d be brushing my teeth and playing with the ball or whatever. I’m sure that helped.”
It has definitely helped, most noticeably by furnishing with Phillips with a requisite characteristic all great goal scorers: patience.
Instead of being hasty when she gets a touch in the box, Phillips instead prefers to try and work for the best scoring chance possible, even if that means drawing defenders to her so that she can set up an open teammate.
Sometimes, she fires sooner than usual – because she sees something, of course – but most often, she continues to dribble with the ball, trying to weave around defenders to lock up a better shot.
She is still playing her childhood game of trying to keep the ball touching only her foot and the ground, although there are no chairs on high school soccer fields – just lurking defenders intent on taking the ball away.
“Some games, you don’t get a lot of shots off, so I want to make them count, instead of wasting them,” Phillips says. “My mom always asks, ‘Why don’t you just go in and shoot? You can beat anyone.’ But, it’s harder that way. You might pass it off if one of the girls is open. If you draw in a defender and then give it to someone else, that creates a better scoring opportunity.”
A marked woman
Phillips admits that last year as a junior she grew weary of teams putting players on her to mark her the whole game.
This year is different, though. She says she now enjoys the challenge of being able to score, even though other teams are trying to do everything possible to stop her.
“When they did it to me a lot last year, I kind of got frustrated,” Phillips says. “Now, I look at it as a huge compliment, like it’s an accomplishment. Especially, if you put someone on me and I get the goal, then it’s like, ‘Yeah, I beat that girl, and their team.’ I like it when they put girls on me now, because between me and the girl it’s a challenge and I know I can beat her.”
Katieb says that along with her ability to score goals, Phillips’ other gift is her ability to assist open teammates, when she finds herself surrounded by a swarm of defenders.
As Katieb acknowledges, if there are two people covering Phillips, then there is nobody covering somebody else.
“We’ve been played like that several times this year,” Katieb says. “All the other teams know of Sam and she is often double-teamed. For the rest of our team that certainly is an advantage. We have at least one player open at all times and I think, especially in this last game, she did a good job of passing it around. She’s able to take three on without too much difficulty often.”
More to come
Phillips hasn’t just gotten attention from opposing coaches this year – she also caught the attention of recruiters.
And, if Thursday’s game against Kent Denver is to be her last in a Devils’ uniform, it certainly won’t be her last as a competitive soccer player, since she has accepted a partial athletic scholarship to play at Adams State College in Alamosa next fall.
The decision to play college soccer is one that Phillips is excited about, although she knows that the level of competition can only go up, and that it might not be as easy to run circles around defenders like she is used to doing.
Still, like the other challenges she has faced, it is one she embraces.
“I’m not sure where I’ll play,” she says. “I’m sure they’ll just put me wherever I’m best I’m sure, and hopefully it will be up front where I can score. Not only am I excited to keep playing, but I’m excited to play with a really good group of girls. I want to play competitive ball with some of the best players. You don’t continue on playing if you don’t really love the sport, or if you are not good at it.”
For now, though, Phillips agrees it’s better to forget about the distant future and focus on the Sun Devils this Thursday.
Nothing is a guarantee in the playoffs, and Phillips just wants to keep her current season going before she starts looking down the road.
She most certainly does see things, things that other people can’t always see, and feels things that others don’t.
Even for the casual observer, though, it’s quite easy to see that Sam Phillips’ future is bound to be bright.
Contact Nate Peterson at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org