When freshman attacker Sophie Kopec took the field for the first time in her college career, her entire body was shaking. Kopec had been slotted into the starting lineup because of an injury to junior attacker Eloise Gagnon, the regular starter. William and Mary was playing Maryland, a lacrosse powerhouse that claimed the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship just last year. It was an intimidating debut to make for someone who had never played a match at the college level.
“We got the ball on attack and I dropped my first pass ever because I was so nervous,” Kopec said.
Just a few games later, Kopec went from a replacement player with shaky hands and dropped passes to one of the most important offensive pieces on the team. That transition included a six-game goal streak that Kopec capped off with a five-goal performance in a single game against Hofstra, earning her the title of Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week April 9. But despite her success, Kopec never takes her role on the team for granted.
“I’ve been getting more playing time,” Kopec said. “But everything’s always subject to change.”
The adjustment to college lacrosse her freshman year has been quite a journey for Kopec. She started her athletic career as a point guard on the basketball team in her hometown in Georgia, but she eventually fell in love with lacrosse, a sport that she saw as extremely accessible to newcomers.
“If you want to get good at it, you can really put the time into it,” Kopec said. “Work on your stick skills if that’s something you need to perfect. You can work on your fitness if that’s something you need to work on. You get out of it what you put into it.”
Freshman year, Kopec moved from Georgia to play at the College and went from a place where lacrosse was a niche, highly regulated sport to a lacrosse-obsessed state where the referees were not quite as stringent with calls. Kopec compared practice here to “street ball;” whatever happens, happens, and you play on.
Even more difficult to adjust to than the rough play has been the higher level of skill. Kopec had 65 goals as a senior at her high school, where she holds the school record for most career goals and assists, but she’s found it notably more difficult to score against college teams.
“The defenders at the college level are always keyed in to what’s going on on the field,” Kopec said. “Learning how to slide your way in between all of those has definitely been an adjustment, and it’s been difficult.”
If college-level defense is slightly improved, then college-level goaltending is on another planet in terms of skill.
“Typically in high school, I could just do a hard power shot and it would go in,” Kopec said. “Here, you have to really fake the goalies, and really fake them with your whole body, not just your stick. That’s been an adjustment.”
But that adjustment hasn’t bothered Kopec at all — in fact, she has enjoyed it. When she talks about shooting, she can’t stop smiling.
“I think it’s really fun to play with goalies. So that’s been fun for me.”
“Faking is one of my favorite things,” Kopec said. “I think it’s really fun to play with goalies. So that’s been fun for me.”
That fun has involved a lot of scoring. It only took Kopec two games to net her first career tally, when she put two goals behind Longwood’s keeper Feb. 20. She now has 15 goals and 19 points on the season, both of those totals second only to senior attacker Abby Corkum on the team. Corkum, the core of the College’s offense, is about to break the 100-point mark for the Tribe in her fourth season, which is one of Kopec’s career aspirations.
Kopec’s favorite point on the season came in the College’s home match against Virginia Commonwealth University. The Tribe was down 4-3 to the Rams halfway through the first period when Kopec got the ball behind the net, drawing two defenders toward her and away from where senior midfielder McKinley Wade was waiting, wide open, in the middle. Kopec looped a bucket pass over the goal, where Wade caught it and scored to tie the game.
“It was such an easy connection between me and her,” Kopec said. “It was so hype, because we’d been working on it in practice. To see the play actually pan out was really fun. We freaked out afterwards and had the biggest celly.”
Kopec’s favorite goal celebration is a classic — throw the stick on the ground, find your nearest teammate and jump into their arms. And the Tribe was doing quite a few of those cellies in the first half of the 2018 season, when it went 4-4 over its first eight matches. For its first four home games, the team was undefeated in Williamsburg.
“When we’re in our huddles before the games, we’re like, ‘This is our house, we have to protect it.’”
“We call [Albert Daly field] ‘the madhouse,’” Kopec said. “When we’re in our huddles before the games, we’re like, ‘This is our house, we have to protect it.’ You can just feel the energy from the whole team.”
Part of that energy comes from the team’s pregame routines, which involve turning off all the lights in the locker room and dancing to “Bang It to the Curb.” Freshman midfielder Annelise Kotz and Kopec complete their own special dance routine before every game. And no pregame ritual would be complete for Kopec without a listen to Gucci Mane’s “Drop Top Wop.” After all, when you love the sport as much as Kopec does, even the intensity of preparing for a game is fun.
“I love the amount of passion that every single person has for the sport,” Kopec said. “To have practice every single day, as well as conditioning, as well as lift — it takes so much dedication and time out of your day, and then at the end of the day to just be so happy to be doing it is a culture I really embrace.”
But after its strong season start, Tribe lacrosse fell into a rut. With its loss to Delaware this past weekend, the team has now dropped eight games in a row and remains winless within the conference with just one game remaining in the regular season.
“A typical pattern that we’ve seen this season is that we’ll get down by two or three goals and the team will just mentally give up and we’ll end up losing by a good amount, 10 goals or something, when it really should have been a close game the whole time,” Kopec said.
But even in the rough spots, the team has been there for Kopec. Teammates will shout, “Sophie, you got the next one!” at Kopec during games when a play goes awry.
“I rely on my teammates as much as they rely on me.”
“They help me know that it doesn’t matter if I just made that mistake, people are relying on me and I need to make another move,” Kopec said. “I rely on my teammates as much as they rely on me.”
That help from teammates extends beyond the field. Kopec has received help from teammates on everything from easing her homesickness to perfecting her plays to acing her freshman biology class. Even when the team is in a rough spot, the players still look out for one another.
“We just have so much pride to be wearing the Tribe jersey and representing William and Mary,” Kopec said. “And we love to represent [it] as best we can.”