Like so many U.S. girls soccer players, West Aurora's Sam O'Brien flipped for her sport.
No really, she's flipped for her sport. The Blackhawks senior has been wowing both home and away fans and players for four years with her ability to turn a handspring with a ball in her hands as one of the finest practitioners of the flip throw-in anywhere.
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The worrying news is that she's been getting better at the tactic too, something she will undoubtedly use when she begins playing for Northern Illinois this fall.
The thing is, as a forward, O'Brien's more than a one-trick player. She can pass, score, defend and perform all the usual soccer skills to a high level -- something West Aurora coach Laura Wagley saw during summer camp the year before O'Brien's freshman year.
"She was this short little blonde girl and I didn't know anything about her," Wagley said. "It rained and we had to be inside, but I could see right away that I was set for the next four years with her. After that practice, she came up and said 'guess what I can do?' And she showed me the flip throw."
Heading into Wednesday night's match with Wheaton-Warrenville South, O'Brien has 15 goals and 7 assists for the Blackhawks.
Many players have dabbled with the flip throw-in, and many have found that their regular throw-in technique is better. The flip throw-in can be intermittent in success. If done poorly, the ball moves without trajectory from the player's hands and is easily defended. Other times, the trajectory is too high and the ball does not have pace as it enters dangerous areas on the field.
O'Brien has worked to develop both, perfecting a throw-in with pace that has enough height and arc to be like a corner kick as it moves through the air.
"When I first do it, it's always fun because they don't know what's coming," O'Brien said. "As I do it more in a game, it gets harder. The keeper knows where the ball is going if they're paying attention. But I'm working on aiming at different areas in the (penalty area) and to try to put a weird spin on the ball. That's my goal."
The flipping technique is difficult enough to convince most soccer players against attempting a flip throw-in. Done properly, the technique catapults the ball across the field, so it is often used for throw-ins near the penalty area where such a throw-in moves the ball into goalscoring situations.
The player runs toward the sideline, launches herself with the ball overhead, flips off the ground having only had the ball as a balancing point for a split second, then whipping around as her feet hit the ground. As arms rotate toward the field, the player unleashes a powerful throw-in, releasing the ball as her feet hit the ground in a motion resembling a regular -- but much more powerful throw-in.
The sporting genesis of the technique comes from the sport you'd expect: gymnastics, a sport in which O'Brien when she was young. By the time she reached middle school, soccer was becoming all-consuming.
"I played softball too, but I was more into soccer," O'Brien said. "I kept playing soccer all the time. I literally didn't have a life."
The first time O'Brien tried the flip throw-in, she says she "knocked the wind out of myself." But she kept practicing and now what was once a novelty is one of West Aurora's offensive tactics.
The team has spent time this year setting plays around the flip throw-in.
"When we're playing, sometimes I hope we get a throw-in more than a corner kick," Wagley said. "We're finally taking advantage of it. It messes with the opponent. When they yell 'flip,' it stresses teams out. I like that there's a mental edge that we get with it."
Wagley, a Division I college soccer player, admits she's never attempted a flip throw-in, and wouldn't know where to begin to coach the technique. But she can coach her team to use the technique, and as the season has progressed, the Blackhawks have become more and more dangerous attacking from all set plays, including O'Brien's flip throw-in.
O'Brien, on the other hand, has worked many hours to become better in all areas of her game, including the flip throw-in. Away from West Aurora, she credits Team Chicago coaches Pete Lambert and Phil Nielsen for helping her not only with her flip throw-ins but her overall soccer skills.
"I had to do some handstands and I had to work on my balance in order to do the flip throw," O'Brien said. "From there it was a matter of working on my core strength and working to be able to throw it further and further."
O'Brien said she's recently been practicing with a basketball hoop, aiming to score into it.
"I've only gotten it in once or twice, but it helps with the distance and with my aim," O'Brien said. "I get harrassed by girls and coaches from other teams sometimes. They say it's not a real throw-in. But I'm confident. Not a lot of people can do it and I've worked hard to be able to do it."
West Aurora's program has been on the rise in recent years. The breakthrough star player was Jess Chavez, who is an All-Midwest level performer for Lewis, with whom O'Brien played for two years.
"She made such an impact on soccer at West Aurora," O'Brien said. "I remember coming in as a freshman and seeing how great a player she was. Even though we weren't as good a tam as we are now, she could dribble through players and almost hold our team on her shoulders."
O'Brien has a fine cast with her this year, and the team has produced notable results such as a 3-2 victory over Wheaton North.
"Having (Chavez and O'Brien) on the same team for two years was great," Wagley said. "(O'Brien) learned so much from (Chavez) and she stepped right into that role when (Chavez) left. My thing was we relied on (Chavez) too much."
West Aurora's regular season ends on Wednesday against Wheaton Warrenville South. The Blackhawks do not play again until Tuesday's tournament opening-round match against Plainfield Central. A win in the match and West Aurora would likely play regional host Plainfield North for the title on May 23.
At whatever point West Aurora's season ends, O'Brien's career shifts to DeKalb, where she will be a freshman this fall.
"Even though I'll be gone, my little sister Riley, will be a freshman next year," Sam O'Brien said. "I'll definitely be coming back for some games. (Riley) is almost identical to me."
The answer to the throw-in question is "no." Riley O'Brien does not perform a flip throw-in.
"I've been trying to to teach her," Sam O'Brien said. "She works a lot of extra practices and she worries me. She's talented."
For the moment, O'Brien and her team are still playing, still seeking their team and individual goals, and O'Brien still has some flip throw-ins to take before she hands in her uniform.
"I'm really proud of our team," she said. "In practices, we've been doing a lot better. We've been able to a lot of higher level drills. A lot of the girls have gone to play club at a higher level and with all the players we have coming back, and those coming in, we will be more ready for next season."