Arizona soccer commemorated its seniors last Friday at Agustin Kitchen on the west side of Tucson. The celebration featured a montage that recapped some of the fond memories the class has created.
One picture flashed back to the time they visited the UA together as high-school recruits.
Samantha Falasco found it amusing.
“I wasn’t there,” she said. “So it’s just really funny to see the relationships I’ve built and everything that has come about.”
The Newport Beach, California native was a late addition to Arizona’s 2016 recruiting class. Falasco was originally committed to Maryland, but a coaching change in November of her senior year of high school forced her to reopen her recruitment just months before signing day.
Panic set in.
“I really thought my life was over,” she said. “I had no idea what to do. I was just talking to other schools, wondering what my options were.”
That she landed at Arizona was pure coincidence. Doing regular recruiting duties, UA associate head coach Paul Nagy dialed up Slammers FC director Ziad Khoury to see if the club had any noteworthy defenders rising through its ranks.
Khoury mentioned Falasco, and Nagy relayed her name to Arizona head coach Tony Amato, who jumped into the mix.
”[Khoury] told me you have to really consider this player because she’s going to start and play for four years,” Amato said. “And he was adamant. He had no doubts.”
Falasco’s father advised her to call the Arizona staff, and the next thing she knew she was on a plane to Tucson to visit the UA.
On the flight home, she knew she would be back.
“It’s what I always envisioned (in a college),” Falasco said. “Everything is right here. I don’t need to go anywhere else, and the whole community is all about college athletics and I just thought that was so special.”
The center back joined the Wildcats a few months later and immediately earned a starting role as a freshman. She has rarely come off the field since.
As Khoury predicted, Falasco has been a four-year starter at Arizona, anchoring one of the best backlines in the Pac-12. Her senior class recently became the first in program history to win 10 or more games in three straight seasons.
“She has been consistent and solid from day one,” Amato said.
Along with being a stabling force in the back, Falasco is a scoring threat on set pieces. She has notched eight goals throughout her career, including some very memorable ones.
Falasco’s header accounted for the game-winner at Arizona State in 2016. The following year, she knocked in game-winning goals against Texas Tech and Oregon, along with the equalizer in the NCAA Tournament win over TCU.
“Sam is the definition of a mature center back,” said junior forward Jada Talley. “She knows our plays, she knows where people are supposed to be, tells people where they’re supposed to be. That’s Sam. I feel safe with her back there.”
Falasco is easy-going off the field but an intense figure on it. Or “mean” as she playfully describes it. That plus her no-one-will-get-past-me mentality is central to her identity as a defender.
“She’s one of the best defenders I’ve honestly ever played with and I think she’s amazing and will never give up,” said junior forward Jill Aguilera. “She’ll put her body on the line no matter what. She could be crawling off the field but she’ll still be blocking the ball and not letting the ball go in the goal, and I think that’s something to applaud her for. A lot of people don’t recognize her. You see week after week Defensive Player of the Week in the Pac-12 and she’s always one of the names who got honorable mention. We as a team definitely recognize her for that even if the Pac-12 doesn’t.”
Falasco is sad that her college career is winding down, but is also appreciative that she has made it this far.
Had it been up to her, she would have quit soccer when she was 11. Fortunately, her parents pushed her to stick with it. Their persistence irked her at the time, but she is grateful for it now.
”I just didn’t feel that this was for me,” Falasco said.
The game had crushed her confidence. Falasco was always one of the best, most athletic players on the field, but suddenly she was a step slower than her 11-year-old counterparts.
Heavier, too. To the point she’d get asked if she was pregnant.
“I wasn’t the healthiest eater, but it was never to a point where I’m like, OK, I’m the issue. I’m eating bad,” Falasco said. “I just didn’t feel like my normal self. I just remember I was always looking at myself like, what’s going on with me? And then I would always have really bad stomach pain.”
Doctors discovered that Falasco had a hernia. She was sent for an ultrasound, which revealed something much more serious—an eight-pound ovarian tumor.
“I bawled,” Falasco said. “I was so scared, so sad. I didn’t understand what it meant.”
In a weird way, the diagnosis was a relief too. She finally knew why she had been in a funk. Falasco underwent emergency surgery and returned to the soccer field a few weeks later with a new appreciation for the game.
”I just realized from there that this is what I want to do, that this is what I love to do,” she said.
Falasco took up the sport when she was 4. She was overly energetic as a toddler and her parents saw soccer as a way to tire her out.
It turned out to be one of the many activities that have stoked her competitive fire. Falasco grew up with five siblings and was always sparring with them in something, whether it was board games or video games.
“On Christmas, we always got Rock Band so we’d always add in a new instrument every year,” she said. “We’d always play that and make it a competition. Like oh, I can get 100 percent or something like that. So it was always like different small, little things, but it was fun.”
Yet, none of those things empowered Falasco the way soccer has.
“I’ll get in tackles and the girls will fall over and I’m still standing up,” she said. “I just think that’s the coolest thing ever. I feel so strong.”
It’s the same kind of rush forwards get when they score goals, though defensive plays don’t garner the same attention. Hence how Falasco flew under the radar during her club career and why Arizona didn’t recruit her until it was almost too late.
“She’s not someone who always jumps off the page in terms of stats or recognition in the [Pac-12], and I don’t think it was much different for her in club,” Amato said. “She’s always really good back there and consistent, and her coach knew that because he worked with her every day and that’s how it’s played out for her here.”
Falasco can only say her Arizona career has exceeded her expectations because she hardly had any. She thought her life was over when her commitment to Maryland fell through, but really her best years were just getting started.
“It was such a last-minute decision and I didn’t realize what it was going to be like,” she said. “But I’ve made the most amazing friends who have just been with me through everything that I’ve experienced so far, and I think that’s just so special. I’ve gotten an experience here that not many people get to have, and I think that creates the best four years ever.”