Sam Apuzzo is at her best when she feels comfortable, yet she’s having her best season when she’s been made somewhat uncomfortable.
This year, the quiet Boston College junior attacker was asked by head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein to transform into a more vocal leader.
“Coming in this year, I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty shy and pretty soft-spoken, so being that big communicator on offense has made me step outside of my comfort zone,” Apuzzo said. “I’ve been talking to my coach Acacia and my teammates about how as a team we can step up. I kind of see myself as a leader by example rather than being this outspoken person.”
The increased role is all part of growing up and maturing, like taking on an internship this summer instead of the fun job of hanging out with friends and scooping water ice at her hometown Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices that she’s done for the last four summers. Adding the leadership component to her play has made her even more valuable to BC.
“I think Sam definitely is one of the best in the country, top five definitely at a minimum,” Walker-Weinstein said. “She proves it with her play. She’s obviously so valuable to our team, but she’s nationally one of the best players in the country. We definitely knew she was going to be good. She’s a special kid.”
Trailing at Yale, 7-6, 10 minutes into the second half Tuesday, Apuzzo’s natural hat trick gave No. 4 Boston College its first lead of the game. The Eagles never trailed again in a 13-9 win that helped them improve to 11-0, their best start in program history as they get ready to host No. 6 North Carolina on Saturday.
“Second half, we slowed things down, calmed down, slowed our minds and worked on the small things,” Apuzzo said. “Once that started going, we got in the flow and it kind of went from there. Our defense was doing amazing stopping them and we were converting on attack which was helpful.”
Apuzzo finished with five points on four goals and an assist against Yale, part of a red-hot start to her season, but one that the Eagles have come to expect of their catalyst.
Apuzzo’s 48 goals leads the country, as does her 67 points. She is fourth overall in points per game at 6.09 and fourth in goals per game at 4.36. What’s most impressive is the remarkable efficiency with which she’s posted those scoring statistics. She is only 55th in the country in shots per game, but third in the country in shot percentage with an astounding .696 connecting with the back of the net. She sits 11th nationally in assists with 19, and is a whisker away from the Top 20 in draw controls at 5.64 per game.
“She’s really multi-dimensional,” Walker-Weinstein said. “That’s what makes her really unstoppable. She’s not just a player that plays on the crease and scores the goals. She can assist. She can feed. She’s winning the draws. She rides. She can light her game up in multiple different areas, which is why she doesn’t stay quiet for too long.”
She stays quiet otherwise, however, which was part of why she may have been overlooked for the U.S. under-19 women’s national team in 2015 as a senior out of West Babylon High on Long Island. Apuzzo was selected as one of two alternates along with Brown junior Caroline Zaffino, a slight that seems impossible in hindsight for a player likely to earn one of the final five Tewaaraton Award spots this year.
“After Sam was named an alternate, she played even better than when she was in some of the tryout situations,” recalled Kim Simons Tortolani, the 2015 U.S. head coach. “She’s one of these kids that once she gets comfortable, and I’m sure this is kind of what has happened at BC, she knows the system and is comfortable and kind of takes off.
“We saw that a couple times with us, and that was obviously difficult for us as a staff. There were a couple instances after the decision had been made when she played really, really well in practices. It doesn’t surprise me that she’s gone on to be the player that she is.”
Apuzzo sat in the stands for the World Championship in Scotland, but says her U19 experience was valuable because practicing with the team helped prepare her for the speed and type of play she’d see in college. Being selected only an alternate also gave her some extra drive at the next level.
“Going into freshman year, I used that as fuel not to prove I’m a good player, but it was like a fire under me,” Apuzzo said. “I want to get to the U.S. women’s team, so it’s pushing me to get to that point. I used it as a help.”
Apuzzo still had to adjust to her new teammates, new setting and new level. She admits that she was intimidated at first by her new teammates.
“It definitely took some time to feel totally comfortable with the team,” Apuzzo recalled. “My class freshman year was kind of thrown into an environment with a lot of big personalities among the upperclassmen. So finding my spot within the team took some time, but also with that, I think because the upperclassmen were so outgoing they somewhat dragged me out of my shell which in the end was a good thing. It ultimately carried over to the field and my connections with people.”
She was shocked by the amount of confidence and trust Boston College had in her early, but she responded by making an instant impact. She registered four goals, four draw controls and five ground balls in her college debut, a win over city rival Boston University. She had 21 goals and four assists and won 33 draws in her first nine games.
“Some kids just have a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net,” Walker-Weinstein said. “That’s what I loved about Sam, and I loved that she was a different type of player. She’s not someone who looks the part.”
Her season was cut short, however, in the ninth game by a torn ACL.
“It was a huge letdown,” Walker-Weinstein said. “We felt so terrible for her because she worked so hard. The team was really frazzled when it happened because we were relying so much on her. Mostly, we were all heartbroken that she lost the end of her freshman year.”
Apuzzo returned less than a year later in record-setting fashion. She wasn’t just healthy in her return. She came back at another level.
“Physically, I felt even stronger than I was freshman year when I was healthy because I put so much time into rehabbing,” Apuzzo said. “Also, I was mentally stronger. I was so much sturdier. I was just ready to go and get out there and give it all I’ve got just because things can happen.”
She played the whole year with a brace on her left knee. Last year’s 119 points and 80 goals were new Boston College individual season records. Her 39 assists last year was the second most in a single season. Her 71 draw controls was the fourth most in school history. She became the fastest BC player to 100 career goals when she reached the mark in her 25th game. Her success is due in part to improvements that she has made at BC.
“I think it’s been all in her footwork,” Walker-Weinstein said. “She’s gotten so explosive. She’s one of the fastest girls on the team, and I don’t think we pinned her to be one of the fastest girls. We knew she was fast, but she’s one of the fastest on the team. Also her ability to accelerate in a five-yard span is amazing. And that is 100 percent what has changed. I credit our strength coach and Sam for working through that. That’s definitely what’s helped. It’s exactly what has to improve if you want to be one of the best in college.”
PHOTO BY RICH BARNES
Apuzzo has picked up where she left off last year.
Despite graduating a pair of second-team All-ACC attackers in Kate Weeks and Kayla O’Connor, and with NCAA final four most outstanding player Kenzie Kent’s return from ice hockey season still up in the air, Apuzzo continues to spark the offense. She’s found new connections with Tess Chandler and Dempsey Arsenault. She’s vowed to not take any plays off this year, and the resulting efforts speak for themselves – which is not to say that she hasn’t also started to speak up more.
“This year, compared to the years past, I have definitely stepped up with the talking,” Apuzzo said. “It’s obviously uncomfortable for me, but I’m kind of getting used to it at this point since we’re halfway through the season. In each game, I’m getting better and more prepared for what kind of leadership and communication I need to use on the field.”
After five points against Yale, Apuzzo already has 211 points in her career, which has her on pace to smash Covie Stanwick’s school record of 309. She reluctantly acknowledges what her play means to Boston College.
“I think I’m aware of how I can help the team and how my actions do impact how other people play,” Apuzzo said. “A lot of times, if I’m off, it can throw other people off, which isn’t good.”
It doesn’t happen often.
Apuzzo has never been held scoreless in a college game. Apuzzo’s across-the-board production is why Walker-Weinstein recruited her so hard in high school, and why she and assistant coach Jennifer Kent were jumping up and down and hugging when Apuzzo committed to Boston College as a sophomore at West Babylon.
“We knew then it would change the program forever,” Walker-Weinstein said. “The greatest thing is she’s so humble and such a good kid. Everyone roots for her and wants her to do well. I knew it was going to change the program forever when we got her. She’s just that kind of athlete, and that kind of kid.”
Apuzzo was a game-changer in high school too. She played varsity lacrosse as well as basketball in eighth grade.
“I love basketball so much,” Apuzzo said. “If I wasn’t playing lacrosse in college, I think I’d be playing basketball. It’s so fun.”
She also played two years of high school soccer. She was selected a captain of her lacrosse team beginning in her freshman year.
“I was so surprised – I thought, ‘Wow, the person who barely talks is captain of the team,’” Apuzzo said. “In high school, it was a little different. I don’t want to say I was more comfortable, but a lot more of my friends who I’d grown up with were on the team, so it wasn’t like I was bossing them around. It’s like we were collectively captaining.”
Apuzzo, the youngest of Michael and Rosemary’s four children, began to gravitate toward lacrosse in middle school. She followed her three older brothers – Michael, Danny and Chris – into sports. Her oldest brother played soccer, and her youngest was into lacrosse. Neither of her parents had played, but an uncle, Carmine Apuzzo, played at Dean (Mass.) College. She played with a boy’s stick in her early years, but eventually started to play with the neighborhood girls, several of whom went on to play Division I lacrosse as well.
“Soccer and lacrosse kind of conflicted,” Apuzzo said. “It was the same season at one point, so I had to choose if I wanted to go to soccer practice or lacrosse practice. It was kind of funny because the fields were right next to each other, so if I went to one, the other would know I was there.”
She began to gravitate toward lacrosse after she began playing travel lacrosse in sixth grade. Two years later, she was playing varsity at West Babylon, and two years after that, she was helping the Long Island Top Guns Black Team to their first national title and committing to Boston College.
“She has an unorthodox dominance about her,” Walker-Weinstein said. “If you aren’t looking hard, you could oversee it in high school, but I saw it immediately.”
Apuzzo has opened the eyes of other Long Island recruits to Boston College with her development. Her field production is edging her closer to all-time BC records, and she’s growing into more of a leader, something that goes hand in hand.
“We had to push her a lot, but when we explained to her it was for her development as a person too, she was willing to try it,” Walker-Weinstein said. “She’s gotten more comfortable with it the more we’ve pushed her and she’s absorbed the pressure and she’s become an outstanding leader. I think she’s growing as a person, and it’s making her a better player.”