Trusting Her Voice: How Sam Thacker Learned to Listen to Herself


Sam Thacker was the IWLCA National Defender of the Year in 2023.

Midway through the 2023 season, Sam Thacker went into head coach Liza Kelly’s office and told her she decided to forego the fifth year she had planned to take. About two weeks ago, Kelly got a text from Thacker, the reigning IWLCA National Defender of the Year: “Is it too late?”

“I responded, ‘Is this a joke?’” Kelly said. “She was like, ‘It would be a pretty mean joke.’”

Thacker wasn’t kidding. Denver announced that the two-time All-American was returning for a fifth year after all on Thursday, Sept. 7. On Monday, Thacker started graduate school at Denver, where she’s majoring in finance.

Kelly was concerned Thacker might regret her decision to leave, but she tried to steer clear of voicing it. She also didn’t question the defender’s whirlwind-inducing, late-summer U-turn.

“Sam doesn’t do things in small measures,” Kelly said. “This is a kid who is so thoughtful with what she is doing. It’s not just color of the week.”

For Thacker, the journey included tons of thoughts — of burnout, of the potential for regret and of her friends. Some thoughts — of riding off into the sunset after Denver’s historic 2023 that sent the Pios to their first-ever Final Four — weren’t hers. It took her to Europe, job application sites and back to Denver again. In fact, Thacker’s decision to decline her fifth year may have been a secret weapon during Denver’s Final Four run.

“The season is always so fun and a blast, but after a bunch of games, you can experience burnout and exhaustion,” Thacker said. “Last year, I felt like I wasn’t playing like myself the first five, six, seven, eight games of the season. When I made the decision to not come back, it flipped a switch … feeling more like it was my last [season]. That played out the rest of the season.”

Thacker was a captain and key cog on a Pios defense that’ll go down as one of the best that ever played Division I lacrosse, limiting all but one opponent to single-digit goals and yielding just a national-low 6.22 goals allowed per game.

Thacker finished seventh nationally in caused turnovers per game (2.30). She was second on Denver in ground balls (59) and third in draws (46). In the moment, Thacker didn’t even get the itch to come back and vie for an encore. She was too busy making history.

“Once I had made the decision not to stay, I was leaving every single thing I could on the field,” Thacker said. “That played into how I played personally, but every single person on the team was so bought in and vital to everything we did, our historical run. It was so exciting. By the time we were on the road, I wasn’t thinking about the fifth year because I was so present. Every second was a blast.”

If anything, the Pios’ performance and Final Four trip validated her decision to leave. Others fueled the narrative — why not ride off into the sunset? Why not go out almost on top?

“It was like, ‘What a way to go out as a senior class,’” Thacker said. “We were all so close. It was so cool to be able to do that. Some outside opinions were like, ‘Why not end on that?’ It was the second-best way you could.”

Thacker celebrated her season and graduation with a trip to Europe. She went to Paris and Italy with her mom. Then, it was on to Portofino with her friends. She didn’t think much of lacrosse, though a voice would occasionally pop into her head. She even started applying for jobs with firms in New York City, even though it was late in the recruiting cycle for college graduates entering the financial field.

“The idea of not going back was making me sad,” Thacker said. “I wanted to stay confident in my decision, so I pushed those voices down.”

Thacker repeated the lines others had said to her about ending her collegiate lacrosse career with a trip to the Final Four and as the nation’s best defender. But those voices increasingly didn’t sound like hers. Miles away from everyone else’s opinion, Thacker was able to consider the only one that mattered: Hers.

“This summer allowed me to realize the best decision for me and tamper down those outside voices and hone into what I want to do,” Thacker said. “Traveling, being away from my usual routines, also gave me space to do that.”

And frankly, second best wasn’t good enough.

“I am an extremely competitive person,” Thacker said. “We didn’t end the best way we could. The best way would be a national championship. I still have it in me to compete. The team has it in them. They are bought in 100 percent and have a newfound confidence that we can make it even further.”

Except it was late August. Denver was prepared to move on, with Kelly announcing the additions of three offensive fifth-year transfers in attacker Jane Earley of Division III Middlebury, Yale attacker Olivia Penoyer and Yale midfielder Payton Vaughn. Though the defense has been Denver’s most touted unit, Kelly discussed a faster-paced attack and an evolved team.

But that evolution now includes an old friend in Thacker. Kelly isn’t sure how she fits into the plans, including how her defensive prowess may fuel the offense’s development — but Thacker will be a part of the plans, for sure. Most importantly, Thacker will play a critical role in blending old with new and bringing seven incoming freshmen up to speed on what it means to be a Pio.

“You have not just what she does on the field but also her intangible leadership qualities,” Kelly said. “She has an enormous amount of pride for the program and love of her teammates. Just having someone who cares so much is important. A lot of this fall is figuring out who we are together.”

For her part, Thacker has figured out who she is — a Pioneer for another year — and the importance of tuning into the only voices that matter. So, don’t expect her to listen to any fodder about Denver being a one-season wonder.

“No one thought Denver, a small school from the west side of the Midwest, would make it to the Final Four,” Thacker said. “Those voices can really fire you up. You have to look inside yourself and the team and see what you all can bring. That is a good lesson for this year. We’re going to have a target on our back. It’s not about what other people say, think or do. It’s about the work we put in.”


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