Samantha Falasco never expected to start for the Arizona Wildcats as a freshman. She knew the Pac-12 is not a welcoming place for inexperienced center backs.
“I didn’t expect to do anything and then next thing I know I’m sitting in the locker room and Gabi (Stoian) came up to me and said before our (first) exhibition, ‘you’re starting, so get ready,’” Falasco recalled.
“And I was shaking. I was like, ‘you’re lying.’”
Falasco started that night and has rarely come off the field since.
Now a junior, Falasco has made 50 starts — and counting — the past three seasons, solidifying an Arizona backline that currently ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in goals-against average.
“It’s always been a goal of mine (to start) and I never expected to, but I’m really proud of myself just to be able to have this chance to play and start and help the team get to where we are,” she said.
In 2017, Falasco’s sophomore year, Arizona won a program-record seven conference games and hosted an NCAA Tournament match for just the second time in school history.
The Wildcats (11-5-2, 4-4-2 Pac-12) will likely host the first round again this year if they beat ASU on Friday in their regular-season finale.
UA coach Tony Amato always viewed Falasco as a potential four-year starter. She was that good at the club level.
“A lot of times players have a mentality of ‘play me coach and I’ll show you’ and Sam we had her penciled in as a freshman and then it was really a matter of ‘you gotta show us and then we’ll play you,’” he said. “And she showed us in practice and then we kept tweaking, tweaking and tweaking and that’s why she’s still playing.”
But what makes Falasco such a reliable center back?
“I feel like Sam’s always in the right place,” said forward Jada Talley. “She always cuts out the ball and I feel like that’s really important. She reads (the ball) so well, like reads it three plays before. It’s going here and she gets something on it, whether it’s her butt, her head, something is always on the ball to deflect it and she throws herself, so that’s why I love Sam in the back. ... If it’s a 50-50 ball, Sam is coming out with it.”
Freshman forward Brooke Wilson, one of the most accomplished players in her age group, used to be afraid of Falasco. Quite a compliment.
“When I first met her at camp, she was the most welcoming person, but on the field when I first got here and we had to do drills I would avoid Sam because she is so good,” Wilson said.
“She could have a ball coming straight to her face and she will take it,” Wilson said. “What would you do if a ball was coming to your face? You’d duck.” (Editor’s note: That is true)
“She doesn’t move.”
That was clear on Nov. 4, 2016 when Falasco scored her first career goal by deflecting a ball off her nose for the game-winner against ASU.
“That goal definitely hurt me,” Falasco said at the time, as she held an ice pack to her face.
Since Arizona is returning to Tempe this Friday, I caught up with Falasco to recap that famous goal, why she likes playing center back, what makes her so good at it, and more.
So what do you remember about that goal against ASU?
“I remember getting knocked out in the first half, but I remember coming back in and the energy was so good, and then being able to score in the last couple minutes was awesome. ... It’s honestly the best feeling in the world, just to be able to have that chance and finish that opportunity.”
You suffered a concussion in that game, right?
“I did. I didn’t feel that until the week after and I was like, ‘there’s something wrong with me.’”
What is special about those rivalry games?
“We hate them, they hate us. That focus is always so much different compared to any other game.”
So when you talk about Friday’s game as a team, what comes up?
“We talk about how we don’t like them and how past games were and how it’s always as a close game, how it’s never 10-0 or something like that.”
Do you remind your teammates about your game-winner two years ago?
“You know, I like to bring it up occasionally.” (laughs)
Do rivalry games play differently?
“The energy, the tackles that happen just don’t happen in any other game.”
ASU is on the NCAA Tournament bubble and your team will probably host the first round if you beat them, so what is your mentality entering this game?
“I think it’s a really important game for us, so our focus this week is being able to crush them from not being able to go to the tournament, and then being able to work together as a team and just build off everything that we’ve worked on for this game.”
Why is hosting an NCAA Tournament game so important? (Arizona beat TCU 2-1 in the first round last year.)
“I think it’s just the vibes and the energy. I remember last year so many fans came out and everyone was constantly cheering and I just think it’s so special. Any home game is so much fun to be able to play under the lights and I just think it’s awesome.”
Why are you such a good center back?
“I think just communication and being strong and my decision-making, that I can’t just go MIA and run all around the field and slide tackle recklessly. I have to be a smart player and make the right decisions and know when to step and when to communicate when we need to help each other and when we need to get better as a back line.”
(Amato’s opinion: “She’s someone who actually enjoys defending. A lot of players don’t like it. I think she enjoys stopping people, shutting people down. And all the other things go into it, but the initial foundation is she likes being a defender and that’s not always the case.”)
Have you always played that position?
“I actually was an outside back and then I was a center (midfielder). And then when I got into high school that’s when my club coach switched me to center back, and ever since then I haven’t played anything else.”
Why do you like that position?
“Not that I love defending and I want to attack all the time, but I think I like being able to see the field. I can see the whole field and not every line can see what I can see. And I like being able to help my teammates out. If they make a mistake, I want to be that person that saves them or play them that ball so they can get that chance to score.”
Center backs don’t record many stats (though Falasco has scored five goals on set pieces in her career), so how do you evaluate your performance?
“By just how many people get past me or how many balls I can clear, how many passes I connect out of the back so we can have a goal-scoring chance. That’s how I see it.”
How do you handle being in a role that rarely puts you in a position to score?
“I guess I take my anger out on the tackles that I make and telling people, ‘hey, I’m working hard back here, I need you to step it up.’”
Brooke said she used to be afraid to go up against you...
“Oh my gosh.”
But don’t you like to be feared as a center back?
“Kinda, but more from people on a different team.” (laughs)
You said you were shaking when you made your first start, so how long did it take to get comfortable in that role?
“It took a while because I was still inexperienced. I still work hard, but I just always had it in my mind that I can easily get it taken away from me and I just need to keep working.”