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Talented freshman leads Spartans' defense

November 11, 2009

Notre Dame midfielder Justin Morrow stops after freshman defender Kevin Cope kicks the ball during a game Oct. 28 at DeMartin Stadium at Old College Field.

Photo by Angeli Wright | The State News

Defenders aren’t flashy, they rarely make headlines and they certainly don’t tally impressive statistics.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out.

Freshman defender Kevin Cope has been one of the most significant players for the MSU soccer team this season, starting every game and playing every minute in the vital role of central defender.

“He’s one of the best freshman in the conference and in the country,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said of Cope, MSU’s only freshman starter. “He really is mature beyond his years, both as a person and as a player. He’s very patient, which isn’t very common for a freshman.”

Cope’s immediate impact on the MSU soccer team doesn’t come as a surprise to those who saw him play at Salem High School in Salem, Mich.

In Cope’s senior season, he was named the state’s Mr. Soccer, awarded to the best high school player, as voted on by high school coaches across the state. It was only the third time the award has gone to a defender.

The award typically goes to speedy forwards, technical midfielders or the player who flaunts the most noticeable offensive statistics. But in 2008, the coaches’ consensus was different.

“It’s very hard to stand out on that stage as a defender, unless you are incredibly good,” Salem head coach Ed McCarthy said. “But the rest of the state did an excellent job recognizing how good Kevin was.”

Salem went 22-1-4 in Cope’s senior season, allowing 12 goals in 27 games and never surrendered more than one in a game.

“He could easily be the best player that’s ever played at Salem,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had other Mr. Soccer players, but he has the additional abilities that the others didn’t have. A lot of that is his leadership and his ability to make those around him better.”

Several colleges started showing interest in Cope in his junior season at Salem, but he boiled his options down to three schools — Ohio State, Michigan and MSU.

When the MSU coaches decided to switch to a flat-back four defensive system prior to this season, Rensing knew he needed a player to immediately fill the void left by departing sweeper Josh Rogers.

“I passed on a couple attacking players in Michigan because I wanted to have a center back that was used to that system and could adapt well as we make that switch,” Rensing said.

And after an official visit, Cope was sold on MSU’s defense-first mindset and the core youth of the team, with defender Tim Granaderos the only senior on this year’s squad.

“Coming here and meeting the guys and hanging out with them, they made my decision for me,” Cope said. “The team was, and still is, young, and I knew that we would have pretty much the same roster for two straight years. That equals success for me.”

Rensing told Cope he had worked his way into the starting lineup a week before the Spartans’ season opener against Duquesne. But Cope kept the news close to his chest — telling his family and friends to come out and support the team, even if he wasn’t in the starting lineup.

“He didn’t even tell us he was starting,” said Cindy, Kevin’s mother. “It was a nice surprise when we walked up and heard his name called. But that’s the way he is — he’s always been a team player.”

McCarthy also was in the stands that day and was surprised to see his high school star making an impact.

“I really didn’t think he would start that first game,” McCarthy said. “But immediately, he was out there organizing the older MSU defenders. That leadership he showed in high school continued right away and was so natural.”

Cope admits he was a little timid ordering the upperclassmen around at first, but after a while, he settled into a vocal role.

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Much of that comes from playing with junior co-captain and fellow central defender Colin Givens, who told Cope to forget he was younger than everyone else when the team took the field.

“I told him that we are all friends off the field,” Givens said. “So on the field, if you tend to get people a little mad for you, it’s for the better of the team. I told him to take the leadership role and that we will always respect him for it.”

The Spartans’ (10-6-2 overall) defense has allowed 14 goals in 18 games this year, second best in the Big Ten.

Rensing credits much of that success to Cope’s smooth transition to the college game.

“I’m a bit surprised with the way he’s been able to contribute at the level he has,” Rensing said. “I knew he was capable of stepping in and helping us right away. But to this extent, I’m a bit pleasantly surprised.”

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