When Sammy Antonelli showed up for his first day of soccer tryouts, the West Davidson High School coaching staff must have wondered if he was one of the player’s little brothers. As Sammy remembers it, he was less than 5 feet tall and about 80 pounds; not your average sized player. His soccer career started ordinarily enough playing for Reeds through the Davidson County Parks and Recreation Department. He then took his game to the next level playing for DC USA and it was at that point he developed a passion for soccer.
Antonelli participated in multiple sports as a youngster including soccer at age 4. At around age 8 or 9, he realized soccer was his passion. At around 12 years old he started to watch and study the game as a student of the sport. He realized there was a much greater commitment to playing at the club versus recreation level. As Antonelli’s passion deepened, he set a goal to play in college. Sammy continued to hone his soccer skills through his participation in DC USA because soccer is not a sport offered in Davidson County Middle Schools.
As a freshman at West Davidson High School, Antonelli started on the junior varsity team. As a sophomore he played on West’s varsity team as an outside winger. As a junior his primary position was a striker. His senior year, he played at the center midfielder position.
Antonelli remembers his high school teams as being defensive teams looking to counter attack. He and his teammates took pride in holding off teams and playing a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games.
Antonelli recounts one high school season at West. His team was the only Davidson County squad to beat Salisbury High School which was the perennial favorite of the Central Carolina Conference. West won the game 1-0. He remembers it being the only match in which Salisbury was shut out.
Mark Davis coached Antonelli in club ball and was his high school coach for Antonelli’s junior and senior years at West Davidson.
“He was always very small but he had the hustle and he was very coachable and very persistent,” said Davis. “As he got older, he filled out and got stronger by wrestling and working out in the weight room. He had an incredible drive and developed into a great leader on the field.”
Antonelli capped off his high school career by being chosen All-County 1st Team, Central Carolina Conference 1st Team, and All Region 1st Team along with being nominated for All-State honors.
Prior to the start of his senior year Antonelli sat down with his dad (Ralph), his high school coach (Mark Davis), and his Club coach (Tim Dezego) to discuss what division of college soccer he could realistically play. The consensus was that he would do best at the NCAA Division II level.
Antonelli sent out his academic and athletic resume to virtually every Division II school in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. He narrowed his list down to four schools after taking financial aid, academic programs and the soccer programs of each school into account. Those schools were Belmont Abbey College. Pfeiffer University, Catawba College and Erskine College.
Antonelli's final choices came down to Catawba and Erskine. When asked how he came to a final decision on which college to attend, he said, “I toured both campuses and Catawba was nice, but when I toured Erskine I fell in love with the campus and the people. I felt most welcome at Erskine and they offered the most money as well.”
Antonelli alluded to other factors that gave Erskine the edge. The school had won the conference crown the previous year, and the coach made him feel like he could play a vital role in Erskine’s program.
Antonelli recounts that he received a wakeup call academically his freshman year at Erskine.
“I never really had to study in high school and did okay, but you can’t get by with that in college,” noted Antonelli. “As soon as I got on campus, Coach Turner told me that academics were first before soccer. I learned the hard way. My freshman and sophomore year I had the approach that as long as I had a 2.0 and was eligible to play, then I was okay. My academic goal was to get a master’s degree in business. My father had a heart to heart with me. He said if this is what I really wanted to do, I was going to have to get my grades up and learn how to study.”
Antonelli reflected on the time and effort it takes being a student-athlete at the collegiate level.
“You have to dedicate yourself to your sport and your academics and you’re not going to have some of the freedom nonstudent-athletes have; but at the same time, it is a very rewarding experience,” he said. “I am thankful that I learned as much before I got too deep into my college experience.”
When asked about Antonelli’s early academic struggles, Coach Turner spoke about his college program’s success at preparing his players to do something professionally besides soccer. He affirmed that Antonelli had realized that he needed to put himself in a position to succeed academically.
Antonelli now sports a higher GPA as a college senior and looks forward to getting a master’s degree. He says while it was a learning experience, it was also a matter of maturing both athletically and academically. Antonelli will spend one additional semester at Erskine to earn a double major in business and sport management.
When asked whether he experienced any adversity in soccer? Antonelli responded, “I need to give credit to my coaches that helped me to develop my skills to be able to play college soccer. They prepared me and told me that I would have to work hard to eventually get to play. My freshman year in college I didn’t get any playing time. It took some time as I was used to stepping on the field as a starter impressing the coach. Coach Turner is a great communicator and he told me what my strengths were and what I needed to work on. He has tremendously improved my technical game. It was about working hard and not becoming discouraged.”
Antonelli credits Turner with taking his game to another level. However, the coach is quick to point out that Antonelli received the same training and opportunity as any other player. He allowed Antonelli to be himself putting it on the line each day. His college program emphasizes getting better with the ball which helps to slow down the game. Turner says Antonelli’s hard work and persistence allowed him to slow down the game which allowed him to get his head up and make decisions sooner and execute plays at a higher proficiency.
“Ever since Sammy arrived he has been the first to arrive for training every day,” said Turner. “When the ball rolls or the whistle blows, if you know Sammy and his personality, he is the kind of person that wears his heart on his sleeve. He brings an urgency and intensity to his game. While always being a light player, he leverages his weight and timing appropriately. You don’t see him bouncing off players. He uses every pound of what he’s got at just the right time and just the right moment in the right position to protect the ball. While his physical stature hasn’t helped, his technical ability has allowed him to overcome it.”
When Antonelli was asked who his heroes have been? He replied, “As far as soccer goes it would be Ronaldinho who played for Barcelona, AC Milan, and the Brazilian National Team. He was the player that I idolized and gave me inspiration.”
Outside of soccer and without hesitation, Antonelli referred to his dad, Ralph, as being “my mentor and the greatest guy in the world. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. He was the one that made it possible for me to be where I am today. My dad spent countless hours driving me anywhere and everywhere just so I could play the sport I love. My father is definitely a person I idolize.”
Antonelli said his greatest fan on the sidelines is his mom, Paula, who he fondly recalls yelling “Who’s your mama?” when he would score a goal. Antonelli further explained, “Mom supported me in everything I did growing up; but she couldn’t always be at my games as she was many times with my younger sister, Sharon, at her cheerleading events.”
Antonelli also credits his coaches for his success, noting Turner with helping him to take his game to a new level and Davis and Dezego for giving him a building base and instilling in him how to play the game the way it is meant to be played. He also cited John Robert Blake for mentoring him as a coach by taking him under his wing and showing him the ropes of coaching and what he needs to do with his goal of possibly of getting into the profession one day.
When asked how soccer might be a part of his future Antonelli replied, “While playing professionally is a long shot, it is not out of the realm of possibility. My number one goal is to go into coaching. I have helped out with coaching some club soccer and have assisted Coach Blake at Ledford High School. Coach Blake has been mentoring me. Coaching would be my dream.”
Coach Turner was asked what kind of coach Antonelli might become. “There are leaders and managers and not every manager is a leader and while Sammy is not a team captain, as his playing time has increased, he has earned the respect of his teammates. When Sammy speaks, others pay attention to him. I think he will be able to reach players and make them better.”
Coach Davis also offered his insight on Antonelli becoming a coach in the future. He said, “I believe he will be an excellent coach. He knows the game and he communicates with people really well. He knows the different means to communicate with different people. He developed this skill his last two years at West Davidson. He understands that you communicate by example and get on to somebody when they need it or cajole someone when necessary.”
When Antonelli was asked if sees his story as an inspiration to young kids playing community soccer? He responded, “I hope people will see my story and realize that if they put in the effort and the work, they can achieve what I have achieved and even more. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
As a young player Antonelli took advantage of those offering him help along his soccer path. He hopes to do the same for future players who have the goal to play at a high level. Do not be surprised if you soon see Coach Sammy Antonelli working with young, aspiring soccer players. After all, Antonelli has and plans on continuing to make good on big dreams.