LEROY " A Sunday night call to LeRoy High School girls basketball coach Brodie Flaherty to set up an interview with Panther star Sam Poppe is revealing.
At her request that night, he had unlocked the school gym so she could get in some extra shooting.
We meet Poppe for the first time Tuesday, voluntarily sweeping the gym floor prior to practice, another revealing instant for a star who doesn't expect star treatment.
When the interview concludes with the offer to address any topic, her thoughts turn to her teammates, especially five fellow seniors.
"My team is working hard," said the Pantagraph area scoring leader at 19.9 points per game. "They are the ones getting me open. We all know our roles. They are definitely the greatest. We've been playing together since third grade on the same team."
Such familiarity has helped the Panthers build a 14-3 record heading into tonight's 6 o'clock Sangamon Valley Conference Tournament semifinal against CPCI (15-4) at Paxton.
Win or lose, second-year Coach Brodie Flaherty knows Poppe will give her all just as she did in Monday's 68-64 overtime win against PBL in which she scored a career-high 39 points and sank 19 free throws, the 14th most in state history.
"We're down 11 in the fourth quarter. In the huddle she says, 'We can do this,'" Flaherty said. "She's pretty cool under fire. This is her sport. She loves it."
Poppe's love affair with basketball began early.
"As soon as I was old enough to dribble, I started playing YMCA ball," said Poppe, who grew into a 5-foot-8 guard capable of playing all five positions.
She's most at home on the 3-point line where she has made 30 of 54 attempts for 56 percent.
"I've struggled the past three years (on 3-point shooting) so this summer, that's what I really focused on," Poppe said. "It's starting to pay off."
Poppe has made opponents pay throughout her four years as a starter by scoring a school record 1,355 points. The fact she is nearing the school record for career assists shows she is no ball hog.
"She has the team aspect," said teammate Chelsey Johnson. "It's not all about herself."
When discussing Poppe's strengths, Flaherty doesn't begin with her team-leading statistics for scoring, free throw shooting (.864), rebounds (6.9 per game), assists (4.4) or steals (3.2).
"What I like about her is her leadership," he said.
"I like to be in charge on the floor," Poppe admitted. "I like to control the game."
Opponents try to control her with two defenders, a move they frequently regret.
"Teams can't do that because we've got Chelsey Johnson and Laura Karr," said Flaherty, whose team has made 64 3-pointers, 20 by Karr (10.2 ppg) and 12 by Johnson (6.9 ppg).
Becoming worthy of a double team requires work.
"I worked really hard everyday," Poppe said. "Freshman through junior year I'd be in before school shooting or running or doing agility drills with the football players.
"We'd have open gyms on Sundays. I was just always trying to find a gym to get into."
The family of Jane and Terry Poppe, who also have two older sons, made use of the hoop at home as well.
"Me and my dad played H-O-R-S-E a lot," Sam Poppe said. "My freshman year, I started to be able to take him."
All it takes to get in a groove at the free throw line like Poppe is 100 attempts per day.
"That is something I focus on just because I do get fouled a lot," said Poppe, who has made 91 of 110 attempts.
Flaherty saw Poppe foul out too often a year ago, a weakness she has fixed this year.
"She plays some of the best help defense," he said. "Help defense is critical, I think, especially the way we play. She is the best at it. She could probably guard the opponent's No. 1 player, but I want her to rest a little bit."
Poppe hopes to stay in the game next year in college - at what level, she isn't sure. The straight-A student wants to study orthopedic medicine.
But all that must wait.
Poppe's immediate goal is finishing off the SVC Tournament in style before tackling next week's McLean County Tournament, in which the Panthers are seeded third behind No. 1 Flanagan and No. 2 Ridgeview.
"I think we're right up there with the best teams," said Poppe, whose squad needs six wins to break the school record for victories in a season.
The fact she helped last year's team win a school record 19 games says a lot.
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