By Martin Cleary
Martin Popp will take a giant stride in his academic career in two months with an entrance scholarship in his back pocket and attend the University of Guelph to pursue a B.A. in science (biology).
But in reality, the freshly-graduated Grade 12 honours student-athlete from Glebe Collegiate Institute has been living that dream for most of this year, at least from a different perspective.
Popp, 18, drove to and from the Guelph Gryphons men’s soccer tryouts on weekends throughout the winter and spring. While keeping pace with his high school studies, he put his best foot forward as a central defender to try to earn a berth on the Gryphons’ 2023 roster.
After four tryout camps, which started with about 20-25 prospective players, he learned he had passed his first university assignment. He’ll receive his mark, a team jersey, when he joins the team in mid August.
“The (Guelph) tryouts were quite difficult and the (Glebe) academics were tough as I would spend weekends driving to and from Guelph (six hours each way),” Popp said in a recent phone interview.
During the four- to six-month period of team tryouts, Popp said he was never immediately confident if he had been successful in the last round and would be invited to return for the next session.
“I wasn’t sure I’d make it. I started to worry. I started to wonder if I should contact other universities,” he added.
“But then sometimes I would get a call mid-week, asking me if I could come Saturday for another tryout. I had to stay on top of my academics. Mentally, I had to stay in the right head space. I was dedicated and I wanted to succeed.”
The Guelph Gryphons will open their OUA West Division regular season Sept. 4, travelling to London to meet the Western University Mustangs.
Success has been a regular theme in Popp’s soccer career, which has been centred exclusively around the St. Anthony Futuro Academy program for the past nine years.
Right from the start, he wanted to play with the best. He spent his first year as a 10-year-old in the tier 2 program, but he worked hard and was promoted to tier 1.
Coaches liked his all-around leadership and for four years he was a Futuro captain. He helped his boys’ U12, U13 and U14 teams win regional titles and was part of St. Anthony clubs that travelled to Spain, England and Wales for international matches against noteworthy clubs.
When he was 13, Popp was invited to attend a tryout session with the MLS’s Toronto FC and Montreal Impact youth teams. Last summer, he was part of a St. Anthony championship team, which won the Ottawa-Carleton Soccer League’s men’s C1 title with 12 wins, two ties and only one loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic and injuries limited his play with the Glebe boys’ senior soccer team, but he was selected the Gryphons’ MVP in that period.
Popp had a brief taste of being a goal-scoring striker early in his youth before he dropped back and became a reliable and talented defender. He thrives on the back row.
“I’ve learned a lot about the importance of leadership, motivating others in stressful situations … completing goals,” Popp said, reflecting on his near decade of competitive soccer.
When Popp is on the field, he prides himself in his defensive passing and leadership.
“I play really, really hard and I put my all into my passing,” he said. “I understand the game really well as well as my teammates’ strengths. As a defender, I see the game from a different perspective. I yell out instructions across the field and explain to players where to be.”
Popp is confident in his tackling and moving the ball around the field.
“I’m on the last line of defence. It’s important to win the big tackles,” he added.
“I can lead my players. Mistakes are made, but it’s okay and you have to get back in the game. What I like about soccer is making big tackles and putting my body on the line. I support my players, help them tactically and mentally, when mistakes are made.”
Now that he has graduated from Glebe, he can focus on preparing to study science at the University of Guelph and continue his soccer career with another Gryphons team.
“In my first year, I want to get to know the team, progress as an individual and be more confident,” Popp said. “I want to push myself to be more confident. I can grow.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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