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DLN ALL-AREA: Conestoga’s Sopko keeps head down, rises to the top

TREDYFFRIN >> If you want to know how Conestoga’s Tommy Sopko became one of the best high school lacrosse players in the nation, a look back at his childhood would be a good place to start.

When a vast majority of the other kids his age were playing video games about a decade ago, Sopko was with his buddies, in the driveway playing street hockey or in the backyard with a football. It was there, in and around his Berwyn neighborhood, that Sopko developed a love for sports in addition to a fierce competitiveness.

“I had a lot of good friends in the neighborhood,” said Sopko, the 2017 Daily Local News’ Player of the Year. “We played every day and it was a big part of my childhood.

“I hated losing there and it drove me to try to win at everything I did.”

Sopko’s high school coach, Brody Bush, saw his ambitious nature on full display throughout his time at Conestoga, and believes that it fueled his success.

“Even if he messed up in practice — a missed shot or a pass he didn’t catch — Tommy would get mad at himself,” Bush recalled. “He wants to be a perfect lacrosse player, which is impossible, but that drove made him to be great. And even though he was hard on himself, he wasn’t hard on his teammates.”

A team captain for his senior season, Sopko led the Pioneers to a 22-4 record that included a share of the Central League title, a District 1 championship and a berth in the state title match. At one point, Conestoga was ranked 15th nationally, but it ended in disappointment when Avon Grove won the state crown in double overtime.

“It was a disappointing ending, but it was really a special season,” Sopko said. “Being a senior and a captain, it really made me proud what we were able to accomplish.

“We lost some really good seniors last year and some people weren’t certain about the kind of team we’d be. We did everything we could to put our best effort out every game and we only lost four games.”

Along the way, Sopko became one of the most feared attackmen in the state and beyond. He amassed more goals (85) and points (129) than any player in the Philadelphia region, including Districts 1 and 12.

“His stats are unbelievable,” Bush pointed out. “He’s got to be one of the top goal scorers in the country.”

Sopko was the top offensive vote-getter for all-league honors among the coaches in the tough Central League, was a shoe-in for all-state, and was named All-American by U.S. Lacrosse.

“I think coaches across the state know how valuable Tommy was,” Bush said.

“I had such strong teammates, it was easy to pass up a shot to get a better shot,” added Sopko, who also racked up a county-best 44 assists in 2017. “We didn’t have any weak links and everybody could score for us. Plus, if you share the ball, you are going to get it back.”

As a sophomore and junior, Sopko scored a combined 74 goals. But it wasn’t until his senior season that he developed into an all-around threat that was just as dangerous as a distributor as he was a scorer. And that leap forward wasn’t just a coincidence.

“As a sophomore and maybe even a bit last season, I had a nose for the goal but I didn’t have many assists. I just wasn’t very good seeing the whole field,” Sopko admits.

“Tommy had to tweak a few things in his game to become a next-level player, and he worked hard to make it happen.” Bush added.

He focuses on keeping his head up, especially when the ball was on his stick around the cage. He also worked hard in order to be able to shoot the ball as efficiently left-handed as right-handed. And he became stronger working out in the off-season with many of his teammates at TopSpeed Performance School in King of Prussia, which was founded by Conestoga graduate Nicholas Sita.

“I think I’ve always had pretty good stick skills and can shoot well, but being able to run faster and be stronger has definitely helped me,” Sopko said.

“The best way to describe it is that Tommy just exploded between his junior and senior year to become a complete player,” Bush added. “He started keeping his head up and he was able to see the entire field. So he became not only a scoring threat but a distributor. It was really hard for defensemen to guard him.

“Tommy is a strong kid. He’s about 5-foot-10, 165-pounds, but it’s difficult to get him off-balance and push him around.”

In addition, Sopko upped his game as a leader. He knew that the underclassmen would be looking his way for guidance, so he consciously took a more active role as a captain.

“(Sopko) is the kind of person that wears his emotions for everyone to see,” Bush explained. “I told him before the season that he has to control his emotions because his teammates will follow his lead.

“In 2017, he held those emotions in check and kept a level head. And with as young as our team was, the other kids fed off that, and he became a fantastic leader.”

Even though Sopko started playing lacrosse in first grade, he also participated in football, ice hockey and soccer as a youngster. It wasn’t until middle school that he narrowed it down to lacrosse and hockey. He also played the center position as a varsity hockey player at ’Stoga, and helped lead the Pioneers to appearances in the Flyers Cup the last two seasons.

“Lacrosse was always my favorite sport, but it wasn’t until high school that I started to love it the way I do now,” he pointed out.

He leaves Conestoga with 155 career lacrosse goals, which is top-three in career scoring at the school. He trails the all-time leader, Greg Traynor, who played a quarter century ago and went on to be a two-time All-American at Virginia.

Currently in Colorado as a member of the national under-19 team at the Vail Lacrosse Shootout, Sopko has accepted a full-scholarship to play lacrosse at Bucknell.

“Bucknell is getting a fantastic recruit,” Bush said. “I think he can break into their lineup very early.”

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