A “lifer” who has called Sandy Spring Friends School home—both literally and figuratively—since 1991, Tobi Goss has transitioned from curious Kindergartener to Captain of the SSFS Women’s Varsity Soccer Team to Associate Director of Alumni Relations and Women's Varsity Soccer Head Coach, with several other professional roles on the side, including helping to lead Upper School Intersession. During the 2022 season, she coached the Women’s Varsity Soccer Team that brought home the regular season championship banner for the first time since the 2009 season, when Tobi was a senior.
We had the chance to sit down with Tobi right after she returned from a well-regarded coaching conference, but our conversation went far beyond the boundaries of sport, touching on her coaching philosophy, memories from her time as a student, and deep personal reflection. Read on to learn what motivates this multifaceted community member to make a difference in the lives of SSFS students every day.
You’re an alum—what made you return to SSFS as an employee?
Tobi: This is going to sound cliché, but it’s true: it’s the community. I’m biased because I’ve been a part of the community for so long, but the reason I was so eager to return as an employee is that as a student, this is the place I felt extremely loved and where I felt I belonged. Our teachers care so much. And there’s the Quaker piece, too—students get to feel that they genuinely have a voice here—to feel comfortable to disagree, and to share. At SSFS, students and teachers truly feel they have a say in the daily goings on of the school.
I was a studio art major at Gettysburg College, focusing on printmaking, so when my mom shared about the opening in the Admission Office right after I graduated from college, it didn’t necessarily make sense on paper, beyond the database work I had done for Gettysburg. But, when I reflected on the opportunity to come back to the place that raised me to be the person I am today, the decision to apply was easy. I wanted to help provide other kids a similar experience to mine—I wanted to make a difference in their lives and be part of their journey.
It sounds like your student experience was incredibly formative. Can you share some of the highlights with us?
Tobi: I’m a lifer [someone who attended the School from Kindergarten through 12th Grade]—and I was incredibly fortunate to have had a loving upbringing in this community from a very young age—it’s a rare opportunity that I treasure. Both my parents are former faculty/staff—at one point my mom was even my teacher—but I created deep, formative relationships with many other adults at the School, too. When I think of Sandy Spring, I think of the community, especially the relationships and traditions.
In the Lower School, Kate Santorineos, the Lower School art teacher, stands out in my mind. She introduced me to the tradition of candle dipping, and I understand she’s been doing it with kids of all ages for more than 45 years. You get your giant smock on, start with a wick, and walk in a circle around the bucket of paraffin wax while singing winter and holiday songs from all different cultures with your classmates, progressively creating a taper candle by dipping it the way that many ancient cultures used to. It’s a tradition that Kate continues today, after falling in love with it as an elementary school student. Even though she’s an art teacher, she uses it to get students to make connections to science and social studies topics.
In the Middle School, I think of my advisor Aimee Farley [currently Director of Middle School Admission] who played a huge role in my life, from literally bandaging up my recess wounds to creating a close-knit atmosphere in our advisory group. I clearly remember that we made a shirt with all our initials on it and proudly wore it together. I’m grateful to call Aimee my friend today—this type of significant and enduring relationship is one of many gifts the SSFS experience has given me.
Tobi and Aimee in fall 2009, on a trip to Gettysburg (where Tobi ultimately matriculated), when Tobi was a senior at SSFS | Tobi and Aimee present day: colleagues and enduring friends
In the Upper School, Intersession [the Upper School’s signature experiential educational experience, in which students in Grades 9-12 participate for 1 week each year] trips stand out for me. The experiential learning outside the classroom was really memorable. My 11th Grade Intersession was especially memorable; I chose to spend that year’s session in Death Valley. In hindsight, I’m really happy that I chose the trip for the trip, not for where my friends were going, because it helped me make unique and authentic friendships across grades. I remember our geology teacher—Art DeJohn P ’11—who led the trip was so excited, which was enough to get us students motivated, even if we didn’t care about geology. It took bravery to hike in those conditions, and I remember realizing that I trusted my teacher with my life. We were hiking in high altitude, it was cold, and we had someone in the group with asthma. At one point she started struggling to breathe, and we needed to work together to problem solve and ultimately move our campsite to a lower altitude for her sake. This type of hands-on experience taught me that working through adversity in community is crucial to forming close relationships. And I created a ton of really formative relationships in my years as a student.
A scene from Tobi’s 11th Grade Intersession trip to Death Valley; former Geology Teacher Art DeJohn P ’11 is pictured center, in the black shirt
What initially sparked your passion for soccer, and what motivates you to coach now?
Tobi: We were a soccer family. My older sisters [Tara '03, Taylor '08] played (they called us “the Goss girls”), so it was natural for me to start playing when I was little. Throughout middle and high school, I played on some pretty good travel teams. I ended up on the club team Laurel Lightning, playing alongside my best friend and SSFS teammate Alyssa Lapp ‘10. Alyssa’s dad coached Laurel Lightning on a volunteer basis—he truly loved it and made it fun for us—it was his passion that drove my own.
I was a three-sport athlete at SSFS: I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, and we had a very talented soccer team (we won seven out of eight PVAC banners). I think it was really important to be a part of team dynamics at school, and it was so wonderful to be a part of school sports in all three seasons. It taught me time management, prioritization, and responsibility. When I got to college, I knew what to do with all the free time and the lack of adult oversight.
I went on to play at Gettysburg [College], and as I look back on my career as an athlete, I realize I’ve been really, really lucky to have a lot of great coaches that I liked, that liked me, and that I vibed with—not everyone can say that. I think being exposed to great teaching and coaching set me up to be a teacher—and my chosen classroom is the soccer field.
I’ve also worked with coaches who showed me the other side: things I don’t want to do, or a coach I don’t want to be. Ultimately, I want my players to want to come to practice every day, to enjoy being with each other, and to enjoy the sport. I try to make it really fun; my assistant coach, David [Denaburg '15] helps me create this kind of atmosphere—he’s also an alum and the kids really love him. I try to be tough, and vulnerable, too. I want to make my players feel like they belong—belong on the field, and belong together.
The 2022 Varsity Women’s Soccer Team, with Assistant Coach David Denaburg ’15 and Tobi far left
Tobi and the team with their championship banner
That’s a high calling—to help kids feel a sense of belonging. How do you do it?
Tobi: I really try to get to know each of my players as individuals, learning as much as they’re willing to share with me, and meeting them where they are. Part of knowing them is learning how they best receive criticism and praise. I also try to remember that they’re just kids, and enjoying the experience is as important as performing well. I’m willing to take the pressure on myself in order to take the pressure off of them, when possible.
Tell us about your coaching philosophy, and how you view professional development in the context of coaching.
Tobi: Professional development as a coach is really important, mostly because kids are constantly changing. Coaches need to be able to grow with their players, and being exposed to expertise from professional coaches at all levels (youth, college, professional) to glean best practices is key. Coaches can too easily get set in their ways—adopting a “my way or the highway” mentality. To be effective as a coach, I have to be willing to learn and grow, both to benefit my team’s level of play, and to grow the players’ love of the game.
I want to win—everyone does—but I want to do it in a way that gives my players pride. I also want to honor students’ other interests. While striving to create a high-level team, I don’t want to tear kids away from or force them to pick and choose between other opportunities, whether it’s other sports, Quiz Bowl, or theater. So, while I offer year-round playing opportunities, I try to ensure that there are minimal conflicts with other school activities. I hold high standards during the season in terms of commitment, punctuality, and responsibility, and I hold them accountable for their actions. We have to work hard every day—maybe harder than other teams, because our players range in ability and experience from aspiring DI athletes to novices who are early in their soccer careers. Having been fortunate with experiencing good coaching growing up, regardless of their ability or aspirations, I want to provide a similar experience for each of my players.
On the topic of professional growth, we understand you recently attended a soccer coaching conference. What did you learn that you plan to incorporate into your coaching at SSFS?
Tobi: SSFS supported me to go to the conference (United Soccer Coaches Convention), and it was different from other professional development opportunities I’ve had. I remember leaving thinking, I learned so much and am coming away with many ideas that I’m really excited to implement! The School also covered a year membership with the host organization United Soccer Coaches—the world’s largest soccer coaches’ organization that serves members at every level of the game—which gives me access to terrific resources online that I plan to share with Bruce [Nkala], our Athletic Director, so that the rest of the staff can benefit.
Tobi at the United Soccer Coaches Convention (USCC), a conference that hosted approximately 10,000 coaches of elementary-aged to professional teams from around the world in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in January 2023.
At the conference, we explored being true to ourselves and vulnerable with our players in order to gain their trust. We focused a lot on the unique characteristics and needs of Gen Z—from the increased depression and anxiety correlated with the pandemic, to the effects of puberty for ages 14-17. Exploring and learning about relationship building actually made me miss my players—almost like you would miss a friend. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still the coach and they’re still the students, but this experience made me want to have better and more intentional conversations to make them feel an even deeper sense of belonging so they can really thrive. I want to have conversations about the unique struggles that girls face—and I want to foster greater trust by being open about my own imperfections and vulnerabilities.
In addition to classroom components, there were also field components that involved club players and coaches in action—I took away a bunch of new drills to implement. But, I’m learning that if you were to divide up the work of coaching, maybe a third of the pie is soccer; the rest of it is the hard work of connecting and building relationships and loving kids where they are—and that’s also the hardest part. The soccer piece is comparatively easy—if you’re doing the relational and connection part well, in my mind, you’ve already won.
Tobi at USCC with Carli Lloyd, US Women’s National Team player from 2005-2021. Tobi shares that meeting Lloyd was "a dream come true.”
How have you surprised yourself at SSFS?
Tobi: I’ve grown and thrived as an individual here—first as a student, and now as an adult. I’ve had lots of opportunities to further my own growth—conferences, sure, but also taking on roles that are a bit outside of my comfort zone, like clerking All School Meeting for Business (ASMFB). It’s been really eye opening to see some of the administrative side of things, and have the opportunity to be a voice for faculty and staff. I’ve also grown as a coach: in my sense of confidence, in being willing to say “I don’t know,” and releasing the need for everything to be perfect.
And, I guess my love for the students has surprised me. I just love these kids—even when they’re driving me crazy. These kids are not just your students; they’re your family (I’m starting to tear up!). This can be your second home. I know the relationships will continue after they graduate, and I look forward to the times when the relationships will resurface—when they come back and visit.
My heart feels very full.