Palisade’s Sami Feller navigates rookie year with Chicago Red Stars

Sami Feller admits she doesn’t want to know how many hours of her life were spent making the eight-hour round trip between Palisade and Denver.

It’s a drive she made countless times throughout high school and her college career at the University of Denver — a hallmark of her commitment to reach the highest levels of women’s soccer.

And despite going undrafted after a stellar run with the Pioneers, it all paid off this spring when the Chicago Red Stars offered her a three-year contract to play in the NWSL.

“My senior year of high school I got another car and since then I’ve put 150,000 miles on it,” Feller told The Post in a phone interview last month. “The miles that I’ve put on my current car — it would probably make me sad with how much I’ve spent driving.”

Few college scouts make the drive to Grand Junction, nor anywhere else along the Western Slope, to find hidden gems. Lauren Milliet recalls this conundrum well. Originally from Durango, the Racing Louisville right back traveled from the Four Corners city ahead of most weekends down to Albuquerque to play high-level club soccer. She, too, came to realize that in order to chase her Division I dreams, she had to go the extra mile to get in front of college coaches.

“Being from the area, you are geographically challenged so I relate to Sammi in that way,” Milliet said. “I think it obviously takes a lot more than a Denver kid because there’s just so much more you have to plan for. … I think that in and of itself is hard for people even from the Western slope (to realize). It takes a lot more sacrifice and you have to be very committed to knowing ‘this is exactly what I want.’ ”

That came to be the case for Feller. After making the trek to Real Colorado in Highlands Ranch three times a week for a year, she opted to move to Denver for college. After de-committing from Arizona State, she inquired with DU’s Jeff Hooker and a scholarship opened up a few weeks later. She jumped at the chance.

As a Pioneer, she tallied 34 goals and 32 assists in five seasons as an attacking midfielder and earned United Soccer Coaches’ All-West first-team honors in 2020 and 2022.

Feller threw her hat into the NWSL Draft, hopeful her name would get called. But her moment came after the TV cameras turned off and the draft was done, when she received a voicemail from Chicago’s front office inviting her to pre-season camp.

“I knew that it didn’t really mean anything that I didn’t get drafted and it was honestly a bit of a pressure reliever because nobody knew who I was,” Feller said. “From there, it was about putting my head down and working as hard as possible.”

Putting her nose to the grindstone also meant being open to trying new things. The Red Stars knew she was talented and had a plan for exploiting her 5-foot-10 frame. The club presented her with a contract, the only catch: Feller had to learn a new position as a center back.

“It’s been such an adjustment and honestly, it’s been really hard and I have more time on the ball. But defensive positioning is something that has taken the most time to learn,” Feller said. “… It’s a lot of back-and-forth in my brain of whether I’m doing things properly or not and is trial and error. … Still, I’m learning every day and I’ve got teammates and coaches to learn from.”

As Milliet recalled, so much is new in Year 1 that it can feel like it’s sink-or-swim time for rookies. But if athletes can adjust to the speed of the game practice by practice, it ultimately gets easier with time. Feller said she didn’t have goals for Year 1. While she’s working for every minute, she also wants to continue learning her new position.

In a new city and learning a new role, she’s now living out the dream that fueled all those trips up and down the mountain passes of western Colorado. The Palisade native had a message for her fellow Western Slopers: Keep pushing.

“I feel like I was counted out because I didn’t grow up in a big city,” Feller said. “I think that if it’s something that you really genuinely want to do, you can make it happen if you want to.”

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