SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Sophia Coffey managed to play volleyball in whatever manner she could growing up: school or club, on wooden courts or the sand of Pacific Ocean beaches.
As a senior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., she told the Pasadena Star-News how she first envisioned herself as an outside hitter like her sister, Camille, who also made the cross-country trip to play college volleyball at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
Fast forward to Wednesday night in Villanova, now a senior for the Pirates, Coffey broke into the top five in Seton Hall history in career assists.
“I’ve never really thought of myself – statistically, I credit every assist that I have to my hitters,” Coffey said. “My hitters, more than anything, make me look good.”
The road to the South Orange record books started in the gyms of Los Angeles – as it turns out, the ideal place to start out for such a goal.
There she played for a club team, San Gabriel Elite Volleyball Club, where Seton Hall head coach Allie Yaeger had two years prior recruited a program icon in Tessa Fournier. With her trademark hot pink libero shirt, Fournier totaled 2,149 digs from 2013-16, second in school history.
So, when the recruiting coordinators at San Gabriel mentioned to Yaeger that they had a setter she should look at, the Pirates coach did. Instantly, Yaeger fell in love with Coffey’s skillset on the court and her character off of it.
“Sophia was one of those kids where, as soon as I laid eyes on her, I knew that I really, really wanted her,” Yaeger said. “She’s a natural leader, she talks, and with Sophia, I see a lot of me in her, which was very attractive from the beginning.”
“Not a single day goes by that I don’t talk to her,” Yaeger said with a big smile. “She’s one of those kids where I walk in the gym and she says, ‘How’s your day going? What have you done?’ And I sit there and tell her and then I’m like, ‘How’s your day gone?’.”
For Coffey, the 2,737-mile move was made possible by many factors, none bigger than the bond she immediately felt with Yaeger and former assistant coach Allie Matters. The two coaches become thoroughly enamored by Coffey throughout the recruiting process, and the feeling was mutual.
“They had such a unique vibe,” Coffey said. “Being in their office wasn’t intimidating. They seemed very cool, very natural to be around, which was nice, And, when Allie [Yaeger] showed us the campus, I also noticed that everybody on campus really supported Seton Hall, which was something I really liked too.”
The adjustment from her hometown of Sierra Madre, in the shadows of the Angeles National Forest, to South Orange, in the shadows of New York City skyscrapers, was more manageable than it might seem.
Everything was new for Coffey, but she had six fellow freshmen: two also from California, two from Texas, one from Kentucky and one from Wisconsin, who dealt with varying culture changes together.
“I love a new change in atmosphere, I really thrive off of that,” Coffey said. “And, I was really excited to experience seasons, I never had that. So, my first fall was the most beautiful thing ever. And then I had winter, which was so cold.”
But, I think overall, my teammates helped me adjust,” Coffey added. “We’re all from different places, so, we’re all brand new. And I think we all grew into that Northeast atmosphere together, which was a really good experience.”
On the court, the adjustment was rapid, as Coffey became a fixture in the team from day one. During her freshman season, she played in every match, and since then, the explosive 5-foot-8 assist artist has played in 281 consecutive sets.
For two seasons, Coffey received digs from her fellow San Gabriel alum Fournier, delivering alley-oop passes to such outside hitters as Amanda Hansen, Danielle Schroeder, Abby Thelen and Caitlin Koska, among others. But in a sport heavily dependent on chemistry, most relationships on the court are fleeting – a cruel fact of collegiate life.
“I always tell the girls at the beginning of every year, look around you because you’ll never play with this same exact team ever again,” Yaeger said.
What was once a situation that offered new experiences has transformed into an emotional year-long goodbye for Coffey. She has applied to law schools in Southern California and Boston, already preparing for the next fresh chapter. For now, though, she is focused on savoring every last point on the court.
“Since there’s five of us being seniors, I think we all are taking every single last moment and cherishing it,” Coffey said. “In our last locker room meeting, we were talking about how this is the last time we’re all going to play at Villanova together, this is the last time we’re going to play Villanova here, and that’s such a big deal for us.”
Coffey was still a senior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy when Seton Hall reached the 2014 NCAA Tournament, an achievement that was not only the high-water mark of Yaeger’s seven-year tenure as head coach, but the only national tournament appearance in program history.
Since then, the Pirates have played in one postseason game: a three-set, 2016 Big East Tournament semifinal loss to Creighton.
“They were all sitting at home with their parents, watching on TV our 2014 season,” Yaeger said. “And being excited, being like, that’s what I want, I’m going to be a part of that next year.”
“And I want it so badly for this senior class, because they’ve worked really hard and they deserve it,” Yaeger added. “And they’re good volleyball players, they’re really, really good. So, I want them to be able to leave that legacy like the 2014 season, for all of them.”
Just as Fournier is brought up in conversation on a regular basis, so too will Coffey when her time on the court runs out later this fall. Yaeger will miss the daily conversations and the laugh that she could always count on from Coffey, a player that reminded her of herself.
The recruiting coordinator from San Gabriel posed the question to Yaeger: ‘Are you looking for a setter?’, but what she got was actually so much more.
“I absolutely love coaching her, she’s very special to me,” Yaeger said. “And, every once in a while, you have a kid that comes along, and she is one of those kids for me that is just very close to my heart.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.