With Senior Star Popper Moving Up Into the Attack, Princeton Field Hockey Defeats Syracuse, Rutgers
POPPING OFF: Princeton University field hockey player Sammy Popper celebrates after a goal last Sunday as the Tigers posted a 4-1 win over Rutgers. Senior star Popper tallied a goal and an assist in the victory as the Tigers improved to 2-2. In upcoming action, No. 17 Princeton hosts Delaware (1-5) on September 16, defending national champion and top-ranked Northwestern (6-0) on September 18, and No. 3 Maryland (6-0) on September 20. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Sammy Popper made a pretty good case for staying up on the Princeton University field hockey’s attack.
After playing defense for the Tigers’ 0-2 Labor Day weekend against North Carolina and Louisville to open the season, Popper scored the first goal in each of back-to-back wins for Princeton this weekend. Senior tri-captain Popper was one of five different scorers as 17th-ranked Princeton beat No. 7 and previously unbeaten Syracuse 5-1 last Friday in its home opener. Two days later, Popper started the scoring for the Tigers in a 4-1 win over last year’s NCAA tournament top seed, Rutgers, on Sunday.
“When you do have a loss, it’s bounce back and win the next one and learn what you can from it and not dwell on it,” said Popper, a 5’5 native of Blue Bell, Pa. “I think that’s what we did this weekend.”
Popper’s move forward helped at the offensive end. She was pleased to be able to contribute up top, although says she valued her time on defense through last spring and the first weekend of the year.
“It was definitely good for me,” said Popper. “Because I’m a natural attack player, it was good for me to be back there and it helped me be more disciplined defensively. I can’t complain. I think it did teach me something. But I am happy to be back playing forward.”
Popper hasn’t actually played her natural forward position much since arriving at Princeton. The Ivy League Rookie of the Year played midfield as a freshman and again last year. And when defender Gabby Andretta was hurt last spring, Popper accepted the team-first approach to sliding back to defense until Andretta returned. Andretta was cleared just before the opening weekend.
“We kept Sammy back there because we had been working on it since the spring,” said Princeton head coach Carla Tagliente. “She can be a bit of a threat out of the back with her ability to hit the long ball. We figured it’s probably best to keep her up front because she is very dangerous in front of the goal. If she gets a little bit loose and gets the ball, she’s probably one of the most dangerous players in the country in the circle. I think you saw that with the first goal last game and first goal this game. Then we have some other players we’re breaking in in some other positions. It’s still going to take more time, but definitely it’s a big improvement from last week.”
After a pair of one-goal losses to Top-5 teams UNC (4-3 on September 2) and Louisville (2-1 on September 4), Princeton was able to bounce back strong in their second weekend. The Tigers weren’t satisfied with a moral victory by giving two top teams a scare, and they took it to Syracuse which came in as the nation’s leading scoring team.
“I think for us it really showed how good of team we are, how strong of a team we are when we just do everything right and bring our energy,” said Popper. “In the Louisville game we felt a little disorganized and didn’t have our best energy and didn’t have our best game. That’s normal to have in your first weekend of the season. It showed what we can achieve and how great we are. It felt great to have that. It instilled a lot of confidence in everyone, especially the younger players who haven’t been there before. It was really awesome for that.”
Princeton spent a lot of energy in the week leading up to the second weekend working on getting the ball out of the defensive end and up the field more efficiently. They struggled against a couple of different press looks from UNC and Louisville, and wanted to better use their full complement of players to move the ball more. They also focused on being more aggressive in the circle once the ball was up top.
“Sometimes we were looking for the perfect play,” said Popper of the first weekend. “So we tried getting a shot off no matter where we are and we obviously did great with that. We had five goals against Syracuse and four goals today. Those were two big focuses and we really improved on them and it made the difference.”
There was also another week of work together as players adjusted to their roles and positions. Popper went up top and the dominoes are falling into place with the rest of the roster.
“Her first year she played in the midfield, and I think she had a good freshman year,” said Tagliente. “Her true position is playing up front. She’s one of the few true goal scorers in the country. It’s just like ice hockey, soccer, field hockey — some people just are cut out to score goals. She has that ability. Playing her in the midfield freshman year, we needed her there and she did a great job. Last year she had to play in the midfield because we were a little thin personnel wise. Being able to get her up front, it’s good to get her in her natural position. If she gets a look in any game, she’s going to be a difference maker for us.”
Popper gave Princeton the fast start it was looking for in both games last weekend, and goalie Robyn Thompson was strong in cage as the Tigers widened their leads in both games. The forward line had made pregame goals of scoring first and followed through on it to take pressure off their defense.
“Having that set the tone that ‘we’ve got this,’ it really gave us momentum.” said Popper. “Obviously personally it felt good for me. No matter who scored that first goal, having that goal was really big for us.”
The wins even Princeton’s record at 2-2 heading into another difficult weekend. The Tigers will host underrated Delaware (1-5) in what looks like a trap game with defending national champion and top-ranked Northwestern (6-0) on Sunday and No. 3 Maryland (6-0) on Tuesday to follow. Princeton’s schedule is giving them constant challenges and helping them raise their level of play.
“It’s good, the kids are motivated,” said Tagliente. “They’re eager to get to the next game and play all these games and see where they’re at and see if they can send a message. They were open in the debrief we had after last weekend about how disappointed they were, and I equally was deeply disappointed. I said, ‘If you want to change it, you have to make a change and your next game is your next opportunity.’ They definitely sent a message this weekend about how they can play and what they’re about and they’re a team to be respected.”
Princeton learned a lot from the opening weekend that helped it post back-to-back wins to balance their record. The Tigers were able to take their disappointment from the start of the year and use it to push themselves to improve over a week.
“We definitely wanted a better result, and I think we could have gotten a better result, but it is a first weekend,” said Popper. “Looking back, we learned a lot about ourselves and how we have to play as a team and what other teams are going to bring at us. I think we did a great job of making those corrections and being strong this weekend. It is obviously tough but looking back we’re grateful for it because it’s a great learning experience.”
There has been a lot learning over the last two years for the program. Princeton was young overall last year with no senior class plus a freshman class that was new and a sophomore class that hadn’t gotten any college playing experience due to a 2020 season canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We carried a lot of learning moments forward to this year in terms of how to play under pressure, play in big games, and know how to close out games when there’s pressure in games,” said Tagliente. “I think you see it with how many of them are playing on the field. All of them are on the field at some points of the game. They may not all start, some games they may, but they’re all on the field at different points in the game playing a lot of minutes. It’s a big jump to play college hockey. That experience pays a lot of dividends in terms of having experience how to press, how to defend, what to do in these moments. It’s hard to quantify how valuable it is right now.”
Popper is trying to make the most of her final season at Princeton, and plans on it being her final season of college hockey. Though she has an extra year of eligibility to play elsewhere, Popper doesn’t want to play anywhere except Princeton, and is inclined to begin law school after graduation. She is one of three captains for the Tigers along with classmates Hannah Davey and Ali McCarthy.
“I definitely think I’ve obviously learned a lot from last year to now, just trying to get everyone on board the best we can with the freshmen and obviously the sophomores too because they did only really did have one year,” said Popper. “Just feeling more comfortable and more experienced has definitely allowed me to be a better leader. Just knowing that it’s my last year I’m giving everything that I have so that we have a great experience on the field and off the field and building really strong connections as a team.”
Popper’s drive helped Princeton get back on track in the second weekend of the season. Her goals helped jumpstart the Tigers and showed just how valuable she can be up on their attack, somewhere that seems likely she will stay for the rest of the season.
“Playing midfield, I’m super used to that,” said Popper. “The back was definitely weird. I could take it as a learning opportunity and thankfully my main time was in the spring when we’re experimenting and it doesn’t affect our record. I do think it was a very unique experience, a good learning opportunity. But I’m very, very happy to be on the attack side of things where I am now.”