Rising Star: The Coach – Sports a path to leadership for women

Rising Star: The Coach – Sports a path to leadership for women

Samantha Allen, 27
Head coach, University of Southern Maine women’s basketball team

Samantha Allen, born and raised in Bridgton, grew up watching NCAA Division III Maine schools thrive nationally, with the University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin dominating women’s basketball. But as much as she appreciated the great basketball coaches in Maine, Allen set her sights on pursuing her own career in the sport outside of her home state.

“My perspective was jaded as a high school student-athlete,” said Allen, 27, who played for Lake Region High School. “The prospect of a scholarship was hovering on the baseline of all of my games. Two criteria emerged from looking for a college: I really wanted to attend school outside of Maine and play basketball at the Division I or II level.”

Allen accepted an academic/athletic scholarship to Southern New Hampshire University. Playing on scholarship at the Division II level pushed her physically while expanding her horizons.

“Our team travelled to China to play college and professional teams. This new experience in a different culture was nearly everything I could have asked for in a college setting,” said Allen. “However, I found that I was not truly investing in my future, as academics did not prove challenging. The Division III balance of competitive athletics and stimulating academics called me back to my home state and led to my decision to transfer to Colby College.”

Transferring to Colby also gave Allen the opportunity to be part of a history-making team.

“We achieved so many of our goals as a team, such as having the best record in program history, the best winning percentage in school history, the first ever national top 25 ranking, and the first basketball (men’s or women’s) team at Colby to host and win a game in the NCAA tournament,” said Allen.

Allen grew up in a “blended family,” with most of her childhood spent with four younger brothers, Luke and Ben Elliott, and Quinn and Todd Allen; and parents Phil and Jill Allen, and Lisa Chase.

“It was as fun and busy as you could imagine,” said Allen. “My family was into sports and basketball quickly became my first love as an athlete, where my brothers loved golf, football, and outdoor sports.”

Allen said basketball has been a “medium through which my life can be understood. Nearly any kind of lesson can be learned, and I’ve had my fair share of successes and failures. The game has allowed me to meet inspiring people, travel to exciting locations nationally and internationally, and build a unique identity based on character and work ethic.”

And Allen knows about hard work. She pursued a master’s degree in exercise and sport studies at Smith College while coaching college basketball, working with head coach Lynn Hersey to take a .500 team to competing in the NEWMAC championship and culminating with an ECAC championship in 2012.

At Smith, Allen’s duties included recruiting, scouting, film analysis, player development, fundraising, academic monitoring and practice planning.

“Working with student-athletes who chose the Division III experience was truly gratifying as each player came from such diverse backgrounds and valued their education and athletic experience at a high standard,” said Allen.

After graduate school, Allen had an opportunity to work with her former Colby College coach, Lori Gear McBride, who had become director of women’s basketball operations for the University of Vermont. Allen took the position, looking forward to working with McBride and the challenge of a Division I school.

The position involved a more administrative role than Allen had experienced at Smith. While it proved to be a great learning experience, Allen felt something was lacking.

“I worked in whatever off-court role necessary for the team for two years before realizing how much I missed the on-court teaching aspect of the game,” said Allen. “It was then that I accepted an assistant coaching position with Gary Fifield at the University of Southern Maine. This brought me closer to home and back in the teaching role that I craved.”

Allen moved from assistant to head coach for the women’s basketball team in May 2015, just a year after coming to USM. She views her role as coach as a way to “support positive change of the values and beliefs about women in positions of power and leadership.”

“Hopefully, exposure to more female role models and leaders will help break a few stereotypes and encourage young women to pursue and emulate similar achievements. If more female athletes are exposed to female role models in a context that matters to young people (i.e., basketball), then those young women will feel inspired to break through similar glass ceilings in their career path of choice,” said Allen.

So what’s it like to be the youngest female head coach in her division? Allen said that while many have commented on her age, she’s up for the challenge.

“I’ve been ‘playing up a division’ most of my life. I knew that when I was ready to take a head coaching position that there would be a learning curve no matter what age,” she said. “I have tried to focus more on what needs to get done and not be as concerned with the age component. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and I know that I will mirror the relentless work ethic of my mentors.”

Whether it’s basketball or some other sport, Allen encourages young women to participate in athletics.

“It wasn’t so long ago that the mere word ‘athletics,’ when applied to women, had a disagreeable ring to it,” said Allen. “To think of all the courageous women who have pioneered through crushing inequity is astounding to me, and I may never fully grasp this importance as I was fortunate enough to play sports without many barriers.

“So if not for the improvement of leadership skills, physical and mental health, strength, quickness of thought, bonding between friends and learning group dynamics, women need to participate in sport to continue to break stereotypes for the strong female role models who came before and for the women who will compete in the arena in the future,” she said.

Samantha Allen became the head coach for the women’s basketball team at the University of Southern Maine in May.

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