Pop up: Princeton hockey player Sammy Popper celebrates after scoring last Sunday as the Tigers beat Rutgers 4-1. Veteran star Popper scored and assisted in the victory as the Tigers improved to 2-2. In upcoming games, No. 17 Princeton will host Delaware State (1-5) on Sept. 16 and national champion and No. 1 Northwestern (6-0) on Sept. 18. , on September 20 at home against No. 3 Maryland (6-0). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Sammy Popper makes a good case for Princeton’s hockey offense.
After playing defense for the Tigers’ 0-2 season opener against North Carolina and Louisville over Labor Day weekend, Popper scored the first goal in every back-to-back win at Princeton this weekend. Senior three captain Popper was one of five different scorers in Friday’s home opener as No. 17 Princeton defeated No. 7 and previously undefeated Syracuse 5-1. Two days later, Popper started scoring for the Tigers in Sunday’s 4-1 victory over top seed Rutgers in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“When you do lose, it bounces back and wins the next game and learns from it what you can do instead of wallowing in it,” said Popper, a 5-foot-5 native of Lam Bell, Pennsylvania. “I think that’s what we did this weekend.”
Popper’s advance helped the offense. She’s excited to contribute to the team, though she says she treasures the time she spent on defense from last spring until the first weekend of the year.
“It’s definitely a good thing for me,” Popper said. “Because I’m a natural offensive player, it was good for me to be back there, it helped me to be more disciplined on the defensive end. I can’t complain. I think it did teach me something. But I’m happy to be able to. Go back to the striker position.”
Since coming to Princeton, Popper hasn’t actually played much of her natural forward role. The Ivy League Rookie of the Year played in the middle as a freshman and again last year. When guard Gaby Andreta was injured last spring, Popper embraced a team-first approach and returned to the defensive end until Andreta returned. Andre Tower was cleared ahead of the opening weekend.
“We kept Sammy there because we’ve been working on it since the spring,” said Princeton head coach Carla Tagliant. “With her long passing ability, she can be a bit of a threat at the back. We thought it would be best to keep her in the lead because she is very dangerous in front of goal. If she slackens a little bit and gets the ball, she could be in the country’s circles One of the most dangerous players. I think you saw that in the first goal of the last game and the first goal of this game. Then we have some other players and we are in some other positions Breakout. It’s still going to take a little more time, but it’s definitely a big improvement over last week.”
Princeton bounced back strongly in its second weekend after losses to top-5 teams UNC (4-3 on Sept. 2) and Louisville (2-1 on Sept. 4). Not content with panicking two top teams for a moral victory, the Tigers took it to Syracuse University, the nation’s leading scoring team.
“I think for us it really shows how good a team we are, how strong we are when we get everything right and bring energy,” Popper said. “In Louisville we felt a little disorganized and didn’t have our best energy and our best game. That’s normal in your first weekend of the season. It shows what we can achieve The achievement and our greatness. It feels great to have it. It instills a lot of confidence in everyone, especially the young players who haven’t been there before. It’s just amazing.”
Princeton spent a lot of energy in the week leading up to the second weekend, working on getting the ball off the defensive end and getting on the floor more effectively. They battled several different media images from UNC and Louisville, and wanted to make better use of their full roster to move the ball more. They also focused on being more aggressive in the circle once the ball was on top.
“Sometimes we’re looking for the perfect game,” said Popper on the first weekend. “So wherever we were, we tried to shoot and obviously we did a good job. We scored five goals against Syracuse and four goals today. Those are the two big points, and we’ve really improved on them and made an impact.”
There’s another week of co-op as players adjust to their roles and positions. Popper topped the list and Dominoes fell into place along with the rest of the list.
“She played in midfield in her first year, and I think she did well as a freshman,” Taggart said. “Her real position is up front. She’s one of the few real goalscorers in the country. It’s like ice hockey, football, hockey – some people are just excluded from scoring. She has that ability. Played her as a freshman in midfield and we needed her to be there and she did a great job. She had to play in midfield last year because we were a bit weak in terms of personnel. Being able to get her up front and keep her in the Natural position is a good thing. If she can stand out in any competition, she will be a game-changer for us.”
Popper gave Princeton a quick start in two games last weekend, with goalie Robin Thompson in the cage as the Tigers extended their lead in both games. Forwards have a goal to score before the game, and then use that goal to take the pressure off their defense.
“It set the tone of ‘we’ve done it,’ and it really gave us momentum,” Popper said. “Obviously, personally, it feels good to me. Whoever scored the first goal, it’s really important for us to have that goal.”
The win even entered another rough weekend with a 2-2 record at Princeton. The Tigers will host underrated Delaware (1-5) on Sunday against defending champion and No. 1 Northwestern (6-0) and No. 3 Maryland (6-0) on Tuesday. A game that looks like a trap. Princeton’s schedule gives them constant challenges and helps them improve their game.
“It’s good, the kids are motivated,” Tagliente said. “They are eager to go to the next game and play all of them, see where they are, see if they can send a message. In our debriefing last weekend on the level of their disappointment, they said openly, and I feel the same way. Disappointed. I said, ‘If you want to change it, you have to change it, and your next game is your next opportunity. They did send a message this weekend about how to play and their goal is What, they are a respectable team.”
Princeton learned a lot from the opening weekend, which helped it win streaks to balance their record. The Tigers were able to learn from their disappointment at the beginning of the year and use it to propel themselves to progress through the week.
“We certainly wanted a better result, I think we could have gotten a better result, but this is the first weekend,” Popper said. “Looking back, we learned a lot about ourselves and how we had to play as a team and what other teams would bring to us. I think we did a good job of making those corrections and this weekend we Well done. It was obviously tough, but looking back, we appreciate it because it was a great learning experience.”
The program has learned a lot over the past two years. Princeton was young overall last year with no senior class, a new freshman class and a sophomore class without any college game experience, and the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We’ve learned a lot this year about how to play under pressure, play big games and know how to end games when there’s pressure,” Tagliente said. “I think you can see that in how many of them are on the field. At some point in the game, they’re all on the field. They might not start all of them, some games they might start, but they’re all on the field. Played many minutes on the field at various points of the game. Playing college hockey is a big leap. Experience in terms of how to press, how to defend, and what to do in those moments brings a lot of benefits. It’s hard to quantify its value now.”
Popper is trying to make the most of her final season at Princeton and plans to make it her final season in college hockey. Although she has an extra year to qualify to play elsewhere, Popper doesn’t want to play anywhere outside of Princeton and prefers to start law school after graduation. She is one of three Tigers captains 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 to do the best we can with freshmen and obviously sophomores because they really only have one year,” Popper said. “Just feeling more comfortable and more experienced has definitely made me a better leader. Just knowing that this is my last year, I will give everything I have so that we can be both on and off the field. Great experience and making really strong bonds as a team.”
Popper’s kickoff helped Princeton get back on track for the second weekend of the season. Her goals helped the Tigers get off to a flying start and showed her value on offense, and she seems likely to stick around for the rest of the season.
“Playing in midfield, I’m used to it,” Popper said. “It must have been weird in the back. I could use it as a learning opportunity, thank goodness my main time was in the spring when we were doing experiments and it didn’t affect our record. I do think it was a very unique experience , a great learning opportunity. But I’m very, very happy to be on the offensive end where I’m at right now.”