WALLINGFORD — The state lost a trailblazing coach and educator this week with the passing of local legend Judy Samaha.
Samaha died Wednesday at the age of 75.
Of her 37 years in the Wallingford school system, 35 were spent at Sheehan High School, where she served as the school’s athletic director from 1995 until her retirement in 2006.
In addition to being a hall of fame coach, her name is synonymous with the annual Powderpuff girls flag football game. She began the first Powderpuff football team in the state at Sheehan in 1972 and the annual Sheehan/Lyman Hall Powderpuff game is called the Samaha Bowl.
Samaha was a member of many halls of fame and was a trailblazer as a player and a coach.
“Judy has left a lasting legacy on the Sheehan community,” Sheehan Athletic Director Chris Dailey said. “Anyone who knew her probably has a funny story about something she said or did that also captures how much she cared about the kids and the coaches. She was never at a loss for words and would always stand up for what she believed in. She was one of a kind.”
Samaha grew up in Danbury in an athletic family. She was a standout athlete in high school and eventually became just the fourth woman at the time to be inducted into the Danbury Old Timers Athletic Association Hall of Fame. She joined her father James and two uncles in that hall.Teaching, coaching
Samaha began her teaching career at Lyman Hall High School in 1969 after receiving her B.S. in physical education from Southern Connecticut State University. She later received a master’s degree in physical education and later graduated from SCSU with an administrative certificate in 1994. She coached softball and field hockey at Lyman Hall. She was the inaugural field hockey coach for the Trojans.
Samaha arrived at Sheehan in 1971, teaching physical education and coaching softball and field hockey. Samaha coached the Sheehan softball team from 1971-1994 and won state crowns in 1975 and 1977. She oversaw two Housatonic League championships in field hockey.
Sheehan’s first state tournament appearance for softball was in 1974, when the Titans knocked off top seed Greenwich, 10-0. The Titans were a No. 26 seed in the upset win that set the tone for the state crown the next year.
Her coaching records are eye-popping. Her coaching record in high school field hockey was 71-24-12 and in softball a whopping 290-60.
During her tenure as the physical education department head at Sheehan, she added pickleball, country line dancing and adventure games to the curriculum.
Walilngford School Superintendent Sal Menzo said he was shocked to hear the news of Samaha’s death Wednesday night.
“She was a dedicated educator in Wallingford,” Menzo stated. “Her legacy continued with the Samaha Bowl each year. Judy impacted so many students’ lives in our district. Each year at the Powderpuff, I was amazed at how many students came back just in hopes of seeing her. I extend my thoughts and prayers to her family and friends. Judy will be greatly missed.”Before Title IX
Samaha accumulated many awards over the years in athletics. In 1975, she was the Connecticut High School Softball Coach of the Year. She was also the Connecticut High School Athletic Director of the Year in 2004, inducted into the Connecticut High School Collegiate Softball Hall of Fame in 2003, inducted into the Tap-Off Club Hall of Fame in 1995, and named the New England Collegiate Conference Softball Coach of the Year 1985.
Samaha is also a founding member of the Connecticut High School Collegiate Softball Hall of Fame, and served as the hall’s president from 1990-93.
Samaha also coached the University of New Haven softball team from 1980-87, where she totaled a 148-83 record. She also founded the Mark T. Sheehan High School Hall of Fame in 1996.
Samaha was a longtime basketball official. She wore the stripes and whistle from 1968 to 1983.
“I’m sad today,” former Sheehan baseball coach Matt Altieri said. “But just thinking about all of the stuff we went through together makes me happy. Judy was a legend. She was a good teacher, coach and athletic director. She was good at all three and not many people can say that.”
Altieri said Samaha was Title IX before there was Title IX, referring to the 1972 federal civil rights law designed to protect against gender discrimination in education.
“Any female athlete that puts on a Sheehan uniform should say a prayer for Judy,” Altieri said. “You have Judy to thank for a lot of that. She was a trailblazer. She was loyal to her players and coaches and the people who played for her are loyal to her. There aren’t many legends left, but Judy was one.”
“Judy was a leader and leaders take risks,” he added. “As a female athlete, she stood up for what was right. She felt that way as a coach and an AD, to be an example for something and not just take the easy route. She never played politics on anything.”
Longtime Sheehan boys basketball coach Joe Gaetano said Samaha gave him his start in coaching.
“She hired me and became a mentor and a close friend,” Gaetano said. “She’s responsible for me being a high school basketball coach and 25 years later I’m still here. She was a great lady with great vision and very supportive.”
“She could be gruff, rough and tough, but behind it all was a wonderful person and to know Judy is to love Judy,” he added.
Like Altieri, Gaetano said Samaha always had his back if you played it straight and followed the rules.
“I’ve seen the hard side and the soft side of Judy,” Gaetano said. “You didn’t want to cross her, but she was a wonderful person. She was there for the kids and the coaches. She was a great boss.”Powderpuff legacy
Cheryl Colwick took over the reins from Samaha in 1995 and has been coaching the Sheehan Powderpuff team since.
Colwick, a Cheshire native, first met Samaha in 1993 as a student-teacher while attending Eastern Connecticut. Out of college, Colwick’s first job was in Farmington. Two years later, Samaha was influential in hiring her at Sheehan as a physical education teacher.
“She handpicked me and I’ve been here ever since,” Colwick said. “I’ve been called the ‘Mini Judy’ because I took over the Powderpuff team. We hit it off right away. She had an amazing impact on my life.”
Colwick said the last time she saw Samaha was at last year’s Samaha Bowl. However, on Monday the two had an interaction of sorts on Facebook. Colwick posted a photo of a sunset, an image that Samaha “liked.”
“She brought great strength to the community,” Colwick said. “Nothing stopped her. She fought hard for the turf field and they put it in the year she left. She had such an impact on women’s sports. There was nothing in Wallingford before she came.”
She added that Powderpuff is a big part Samaha’s legacy. There’s been as many as 5,000 fans at the big game, which averages more than 3,000 per year.
“I don’t think she knew how big it would get,” Colwick said. “The participation numbers have grown. I have people calling me from all over the country asking how to start a Powderpuff team and that’s all because of Judy.”