Thomas Sanner has been looking forward to getting his first taste of Ivy League men’s soccer for a few years.
The Indianapolis, Ind. native has followed the career of his older brother, Matt, a senior star and co-captain for the Princeton University squad, and decided to join him.
Last Saturday, the younger Sanner, now a freshman forward on the Tigers, made his Ivy debut as Princeton hosted Dartmouth in the league opener for both teams.
Sanner knew he was in for a challenge as the Tigers battled the Big Green.
“All I was hearing this week was how much more intense, physical, and fast the game is in the Ivy League,” said Sanner.
“Because you don’t have a tournament, the games are that much more important. Especially the first game against Dartmouth; they have been a perennial powerhouse.”
The 6’3, 185-pound Sanner didn’t waste any time making a big impact, scoring the first goal of the contest 17 minutes into the first half as he converted a feed from his older brother.
“It was kind of funny because my brother passed me the ball; he has been teasing me all year how I haven’t scored on one of his passes,” said Sanner.
“I got it down the right side and I didn’t really have anything else so I just hit it low to the back post. That was crazy; I blacked out when I scored.”
Dartmouth responded with a goal 20 minutes later and neither team scored again in regulation and the game went into overtime knotted in a 1-1 stalemate.
Just 1:45 into the extra session, the Tigers came through as Cameron Porter banged a ball off the Dartmouth goalie over the line with Sanner lurking in the box as the Tigers won 2-1.
“We felt like we really deserved this game; I think this might be the best that we have played as a team,” said Sanner.
“There was a really good vibe going into OT. We were saying just get it quick and we got it quick. Cam made a great run down the sideline and he tried to cross it and the goalie missed it and it went barely over the line. I probably should have hit it in but that was Cam’s goal.”
Sanner has adjusted quickly to the college game, establishing himself as a key weapon for the Tigers.
“The game is a lot more physical and quicker,” said Sanner, who leads Princeton in goals (3) and assists (5) and has been named Ivy League Rookie of the Week four times already this season, including this week.
“You have to get the ball off your feet a lot quicker. It has definitely taken me a lot longer to get used to it but I feel like I have been getting in a groove.”
Having his older brother around has helped Sanner get in a groove on and off the field.
“Ever since Matt got here, it has just been a dream to come here and play with him; this is the first time I have ever played with him,” said Sanner, noting that he was on the JV as a freshman at North Central High as his brother starred on the varsity.
“It is amazing; there is nothing better than the goal celebration and just jumping up and hugging each other. He has been telling me all the mistakes that he has made and has introduced me to a bunch of people. It has been really fun.”
It was certainly fun for Princeton head coach Jim Barlow to see his club rise to the occasion in the win over Dartmouth.
“I thought that the effort we put on the field against Rutgers [in a 2-0 loss on September 8] was one of the more disappointing efforts we have put on the field since I have been here,” said Barlow, whose team has won four straight to improve to 5-3 in his 17th season at the helm of the program.
“Today, it was the exact opposite. I think from start to finish this was one of the best efforts that we have put together, competing-wise, soccer-wise, and discipline-wise.”
Some spirited competition in practice has helped Princeton get on the winning track.
“We had a really good week of training and the credit for so much of how we are going right now goes to the guys who are not getting in the game because the training sessions have been so good,” said Barlow.
“There have been some days where the second team has beaten the first team. The battles everyday in training remind us of the good years we have had.”
Barlow knows that a team has to set a positive tone from the start of the league campaign to have a good year.
“We knew from the last couple of years how important the first couple of games in the league are,” said Barlow.
“With only seven league games, if you get in a hole then you are panicked a little bit and your backs are against the wall and you have to win. If you win early, you get a little momentum and you get confidence. There is not as much pressure on you. You have got to win your home games; it was a really big result for us today.”
The Tigers are getting a big lift from precocious freshman Sanner. “It is really nice to have a pure center forward like Thomas,” said Barlow.
“To have a guy who stays all the way up the field, who doesn’t mind if guys are up his back all the time and who is big and strong enough that he can hold guys off is just a really nice weapon to have. He can pass and he is really good around the goal.”
With sophomore star Julian Griggs sidelined by an ACL injury, the Tigers need Sanner and others to be sharp around the goal.
“Julian is a guy who we were counting on for a lot of goals this year so now we have to figure out where those goals are going to come from,” said Barlow.
“I think we still have weapons and different ways of getting dangerous, whether it is with our possession on counters or restarts, throw-ins, and corners. I think we got a lot of opportunities today.”
In Barlow’s view, the Tigers have been seizing opportunity during their winning streak.
“I think we are just getting better as a team,” asserted Barlow. “I just think when you look at how we move the ball now and how we stay connected now compared to three weeks ago, we are better. I think the guys have really taken everyday seriously and it is showing in how it looks offensively and defensively.”
With the student fans showing some raucous support at Roberts Stadium, the Tigers are looking like a team that is going to be tough to beat at home.
“The other thing I will say is how great it is to have some really fun fans at the games here,” said Barlow. “You can’t help but feel the energy and that’s awesome.”
Sanner, for his part, believes Princeton can draw a lot of cheers this fall.
“Last year when you watched, these were the games they would lose,” said Sanner.
“I think they had two or three games last year where they lost in the last minute of OT. This is a big confidence boost; we have got to keep it up.”