Watching West Aurora senior Sam O’Brien deliver a flip throw-in into the opponent’s goalkeeper box leaves most observers in awe.
While her throw-in ability hasn’t been a secret for years, what continues to be overlooked about O’Brien are her all-around skills.
She first began demonstrating her sideline threat as a freshman. But over the years, few people noticed how she played every position depending on what Blackhawks coach Laura Wagley or the team needed.
Since joining Team Chicago’s club program at 7 years old, O’Brien lined up anywhere “as long as it meant getting to play.” Originally she participated in a variety of sports, including the Turners Gymnastics Club, which gave her the foundation for her signature throw-in.
“I was a ball girl at a Waubonsie Valley match and saw one of their players do it and figured I could do it,” O’Brien recalled. “The very first time I tried, I knocked the wind out of myself. Eventually, I started taking a ball to gymnastics so I could have a softer landing. At first it was terrible; the ball would either go no where or straight up.”
Team Chicago owner Hudson Fortune helped O’Brien hone her technique during camps. She admitted being frustrated because of a lack of consistency on her throws.
“Like anything, it’s repetition,” said O’Brien, a Northern Illinois recruit. “I kept trying and trying and trying. Finally it clicked.”
That’s no surprise to Wagley, who used O’Brien’s versatility alongside one of the Blackhawks’ most prolific scorers in Jessica Saffell.
A portion of O’Brien’s sophomore year was spent filling in as goalkeeper, but she stepped out of Saffell’s shadow to lead the team offensively the past two years. As a senior, O’Brien leads West in goals (15), winners (five) and assists (seven).
“It’s no secret that everything runs through her offensively because she is such a threat on and off the ball,” Wagley said. “She can see the play developing and knows where to be at all times. If others are not playing up to expectations, she holds them accountable and gets them working harder.
“Because she’s so relentless, she can change momentum and lead us through tough situations. The flip throw-in is a huge advantage, but her speed, shot selection, ability to attack a defender 1-v-1, play to an open teammate or make a cross is what makes her a player that has to be stopped.”
O’Brien’s approach has been crucial with West Aurora generally being a DuPage Valley Conference underdog against Naperville North and Naperville Central, as well as the other tradition-rich Fox Valley programs.
While she yielded 22 goals as a goalkeeper, she shared in three shutout wins and made 64 saves. But her career numbers offensively feature 41 goals, including 10 winners, and 32 assists — statistics that are a successful year for some teams.
“Having your high school career finishing makes you look back, and I can’t help but realize what a huge ‘Thank you’ I owe my parents for all the sacrifices, long car rides to tournaments, trips to practice,” O’Brien said. “As much as I look forward to playing Division I, I’m so grateful to Coach Wagley and my club coaches, Pete Lambert, Joe Moreau and Phil Nielsen, for making me the player I am today.”