Germantown Academy’s Sammy Popper (right) jousts for ball possession with Taylor Lange of the Hill School. The Patriots freshman has recorded 13 goals and three assists in her first five games. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Germantown Academy’s Sammy Popper (right) jousts for ball possession with Taylor Lange of the Hill School. The Patriots freshman has recorded 13 goals and three assists in her first five games. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

When 2006 Germantown Academy graduate Jackie Connard returned in August to head up the Patriots varsity field hockey program, her new team appeared to be in rebuilding mode. Along with GA’s Class of 2015 had gone 10 senior sticksters, more than half of them starters the previous fall.

If, going by those numbers, GA is at a low point in the personnel cycle, other teams might not mind being in the Patriots’ position, since the team has gotten off to a 5-0 start in its early non-league matches. Opening up with three-time Friends Schools League champion Academy of the New Church, GA scored with two seconds remaining to pull out a 4-3 victory on September 9.

As the mixture of veteran players and varsity newcomers began to gel, the offense really got rolling. After downing Germantown Friends, Springfield High and Princeton Day School, the Pats knocked off visiting Hill School by a 7-1 score last Saturday afternoon, emerging with a goals for/against figure of 37-8.

“The girls have bought into the mentality of being a smart ‘possession’ team,” commented Connard, a former Brown University team captain. “They’re an extremely energetic group with a lot of will to win. They’re friends off the field, and there’s good team chemistry all around.”

The team co-captains are Shayne Cerebe (also a track standout for GA) and Allie Ernst, and their senior classmates on the roster are Lauren Rajauski, Rachel Rost, Valerie Simkins and Christine Weeks.

Cerebe, junior Carli McCrossen and sophomore Colleen Carrigan have been productive scorers over the first five games. In the recent outing against Hill School, juniors Ali Crump and Sydney Brown played solid defense in front of sophomore goalie Hannah Santos, and junior Isabelle Jacobs and sophomore Maddie Cooper were very active in the midfield.

The fact that the player who most draws your attention is a freshman may surprise many observers, but not those who’ve followed GA middle school hockey or the United States junior national team program. Freshman Samantha “Sammy” Popper is already a member of the U.S. Under-19 National Indoor Team, and recently she was called up to work out with the U-21’s.

For the GA varsity, she immediately made her mark by logging two goals and one assist in the season opener at ANC, where she fired the dramatic game-winning shot. She scored four goals against Hill last weekend and over the first five games she has accumulated 13 goals and three assists.

“She’s an incredibly skilled player,” Connard said, “and she’s also a great team player who distributes the ball really well.”

Identified as a midfielder, Popper is not only a scoring workhorse and a key connector in transition, but is also part of the Patriots’ penalty corner defensive unit.

Last Saturday’s opponent, Hill School (0-3) had been struggling on defense, and the Patriots didn’t want the Blues to have any reason to believe that this match would be any different.

Connard explained, “Coming out, we wanted to try and score right away so that we set the tone for the game, and then just play strong the whole 60 minutes.”

Popper put the Pats on the board less than two-and-a-half minutes in, carrying the ball into the left side of the circle and sinking a reverse-stick shot. However, Hill was able to answer just beyond the 10-minute mark.

On a GA corner play not long after that, a Popper shot came back off the leg pads of the Hill keeper, but the Patriots kept up the attack and soon cashed in on a corner with 13:25 remaining in the first half. The insertion was sent back down near the right post, and McCrossen knocked the ball home. Jacobs had assisted on the strike, which moved the hosts ahead for good.

Germantown quickly reinforced its lead with two more goals over the next three minutes. From near the right post, Cerebe converted off of a feed from Cooper, and then with 10:20 in the clock, the Blues’ goalie hit the deck while trying to fend off the Pats in front of the cage. She covered up the ball and a penalty stroke was called, which Popper sent into the cage about head-high on the left.

The freshman’s second reverse-stick goal of the half gave her squad a 5-1 lead 80 seconds before halftime, and GA went right back up into the circle. Hill attempted to clear the ball out and sent it airborne, but Cooper knocked it down near the top of the circle and drove it low on the left. Ernst was in position at the near post for the tip-in, and with 36 seconds remaining, the 6-1 halftime score was up on the board.

“In our last game [the 7-2 win at Princeton Day] the two goals we gave up came right at the end of each half,” Connard noted. “Today one of our goals was to finish out the halves without a letdown.”

When Popper produced her fourth goal of the day nine minutes into the second period the Patriots held a 7-1 lead, and from then on they simply had to maintain a comfortable advantage. They were able to do that during a man-down yellow card stretch that began not long after Popper’s final goal.

Overall, Hill spent more time on the attack in the second half than it had in the first, but the visitors only managed one more goal, which came with 12:15 left to play. Santos, the GA keeper, finished the game with nine saves.

The Patriots play two more non-league bouts this week, then open the Inter-Ac League season on September 29, when they host Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.