While rare, two-sport athletes have always been a revered part of American sports culture.
Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are usually the first two in the minds of most fans, but last year, when then-freshman Matt Poplawski took the floor at the Palestra, Penn had one of its own.
And while it may have seemed unlikely to recur this year — given that Poplawski’s addition to the men’s basketball squad was driven by a rash of injuries — the sophomore will be a part of two varsity teams this year.
An honorable mention All-Ivy midfielder for the Ivy League Champion men’s soccer team in the fall, Poplawski had never given playing basketball in college much thought. Early on, he decided that soccer was the sport he would pursue upon graduating high school.
“To be honest — I think [Penn men’s soccer coach] Rudy [Fuller] knows this — basketball was always my favorite,” Poplawski said. “But soccer was always the one I knew I would play in college.”
For Poplawski, basketball and soccer have always been major parts of his life, but never too difficult to balance.
The Bellevue, Wash. native was a five-year captain of Crossfire academy, a local club soccer team, as well as captain of his high school basketball team when they reached the state finals in his senior season.
When it came time to think about athletics in college, one thing really stood out to Poplawski: the ability for his sport to help further his education. When considering that, soccer became the clear frontrunner in Poplawski’s mind.
“I knew the type of school I wanted to go to, I wasn’t going to be able to make [basketball] happen, at least at the time.”
And though he gave up intentions of playing basketball for a varsity program in college, Poplawski had no intention of giving up his second sport entirely. Upon arriving at Penn, he was made aware of the junior varsity team and soon decided to try out.
“I actually didn’t know we had a JV program when I came in, but that ended up working out really well,” Poplawski said. “I talked to the coaches right as I came in, letting them know I was interested and that worked well as a tryout for me.”
Though he knew there was a remote possibility that his position could lend itself to a transfer to varsity, the idea never really stayed in the then-freshman’s mind.
Then the injuries began to pile up. Next thing anyone knew, the Quakers were short-handed.
When former assistant coach and head JV coach Jason Polykoff gave Poplawski the call to join the Red and Blue against Harvard last February, his dream became reality. For the soccer star, the experience was “incredible,” especially getting to play against a nationally-hyped team like Harvard in his opening game.
Poplawski saw very limited minutes throughout his four appearances for the team, playing a total of seven minutes while contributing two points on a pair of free throws.
“It was really positive. The point guards, all the guys I was working with helped catch me up to speed with the coaches,” he said.
“They all understood it was a tough transition coming in that late in the year, and they really welcomed me. Towards the end, it just started to feel normal.”
Yet right now, Poplawski is entirely focused on the upcoming soccer season. As part of his agreement to play both sports, the sophomore will entirely dedicate each season to its respective sport.
For Fuller, it’s that focus that helped him come to terms with one of his strongest athletes splitting his time.
“Matt and I have talked about it, and I know he’s talked to [Penn men’s basketball coach] Jerome [Allen],” Fuller said. “As long as soccer’s the priority during soccer season, I have no problem with basketball being the priority during basketball season.”
“It’s a credit to him as an individual and an athlete that he’s able to juggle both,” he added.
Though Penn fans won’t get to see Poplawski step out onto the Palestra hardwood for a few months to come, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch this tremendous athlete on the pitch as the men’s soccer program opens its season this weekend.