Nov. 26, 2013
By Aimee Dulebohn, MSU Athletic Communications Intern
In his four and a half years as a Michigan State Spartan, Kevin Cope has been called many things.
“One of the best centerbacks in the country.”; “The toughest player to wear green and white.” But all he’s concerned about is living up to the name he proudly wears on his chest.
“I think that I have a pretty good work ethic and I think that kind of defines what a Spartan is,” said Cope. “You have this image of a person who likes to battle and a person that has a strong physique and that’s what I strive for; to be a leader and to be that rock for the team. If every Spartan tries to do that, every team should be in pretty good shape. That’s what I try to do for the men’s soccer team.”
A prospect out of Canton, Mich., Cope was recruited by some of the top programs in the Big Ten. Though he grew up closer to Ann Arbor than East Lansing, it was the vision that he and head coach Damon Rensing shared that sealed the deal for the future Spartan.
“The three schools that I was looking at were Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State,” said Cope. “When I came here with the atmosphere and the culture, not just with the team, but with the whole university, I just loved it.
“The team was young and they were building and I really thought that if I came, we would have a chance to grow together and become a team to be reckoned with. I haven’t regretted my decision since the day I made it.”
Meanwhile, Rensing was taking over the reigns of the Spartan program from legendary coach Joe Baum. With both coach and player in transition at the same point, some might say it was a match made in Spartan heaven.
“I switched systems when I took over for Joe and went into zonal defending,” said head coach Damon Rensing. “There were a couple of players in the state that were attacking players that were as highly-touted as Kevin, but I thought if our program was going to be about defense, then I needed to get the best defender and Kevin was certainly that. He’s anchored that mentality for the defense for these last four or five years.”
Cope has seen firsthand the development of the program during his and Rensing’s tenure, culminating with the team earning their first ever No. 1 RPI ranking his senior season. The team has undoubtedly been defined by its defense, recording 12 shutouts so far this season and battling to the third-best save percentage in all of college soccer.
“We were a top-25 team my sophomore year and we’re right back there again now,” Cope said. “I think the Big Ten is earning more respect and we’re earning more respect within the Big Ten. We’re starting to get national recognition and people know who we are.”
Though a defensive stalwart, Cope has been in just the right position to make offensive contributions as well. After scoring one goal prior to 2013, he has scored two goals for the Spartans this season.
Many can scan over a box score and easily overlook a strong defensive performance. But with the help of some key power players on the back line, Cope has helped Michigan State build a reputation of a stout defense. While on the field, he has contributed to 28 shutouts in his career.
“It goes back to chemistry on and off the field,” Cope said. “We know each other’s tendencies and we know people’s strengths and weaknesses. I do things to help (Ryan) Keener out and he does things to help me out. It’s a mutual relationship, on and off the field. We’ve been through a lot of adversity, this whole team has, through the time that I’ve been here. One thing that we’ve always prided ourselves on is defense. Now that we have the experience, the chemistry and the talent, it’s a good backline to have and we’ve proven ourselves so far.”
With his Spartan career coming to an end, Cope was named one of 10 finalists for the 2013 men’s soccer Senior CLASS award that recognizes character, classroom achievements, competition and community service. He was the first player in MSU history to be honored as a finalist for the national award.
Whether on the field, on campus or around the community, Cope has without a doubt accomplished his goal of being a true leader for Michigan State soccer. Bringing more than just his playing abilities to the team, it is no surprise that he has been voted a team captain for the Spartans for the past three years.
“It’s something special. Being a Spartan is something special and being able to be a leader of 20-something Spartans is pretty special, too,” said Cope. “Damon’s first head coaching season was my first year, so we had that bond naturally and it blossomed pretty quick. I think we have a level of respect for each other and we’ve had great success so far. To know that him, the coaching staff and team trusts me and to have their respect, it does mean a lot to me.”
Exhibiting leadership both on and off the field, Cope without a doubt leads up to the expectations Rensing had when he recruited him. But he may not have forseen the alliance they would build as they both shaped their Spartan legacies.
“Not only is he obviously a very good soccer player, but he also brings the mentality that I want to instill in my program,” Rensing said. “It’s been a great relationship. He’s been really easy to work with; he’s easy to push and he responds to coaching and those are the top players you want in the program.”
Though they both knew it was possible, Cope and Rensing could have never imagined the memories they would make together at MSU. Even with the pair being able to compete against some of the most notable programs in college soccer, not much is sweeter than a big win over in-state rival Michigan.
“The Big Ten Championship win last year was pretty special,” Cope said. “Being in overtime, that gets pretty exciting. I know a lot of the guys on that team and I played with them for a very long time; we know each other’s tendencies. Like Damon says, when you have respect for somebody, those are the guys you want to beat the most. It’s so true with Michigan. I love playing against guys that I know, but for those 90 minutes, we’re enemies. We can laugh about it and talk about it afterwards, but that win was pretty special.”
In the final regular season game of 2013, there was not a better way to send off Cope and the rest of the Spartan senior class than with a shutout win over the Wolverines in front of the second largest crowd in program history.
Though Cope has been a part of the Spartans’ progress over his career, no success comes without tribulation and if anyone has been witness to the adversity faced by the team, it has been Kevin Cope.
After his rookie campaign ended in being honored as the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the year, he has since battled multiple injuries throughout his career even forcing him to miss the majority of his junior season.
Just this year, Cope missed five games for the Spartans fighting an injury to his right foot. Unwilling to forgo anymore time on the pitch, he has been competing with a broken rib for a physically-grueling month as the Spartans made a 2013 Big Ten Tournament Championship run.
Cope’s tenacious work ethic has without a doubt carried over to his success in the classroom. With only one class left to graduate with a degree in finance, Cope’s career in the green and white will also signify the end of his time at Michigan State as he will celebrate his commencement in December. However, Cope’s soccer legacy will likely continue as he is one of the top prospects in the 2014 MLS Draft.
“I definitely want to play, I want to play as long as I can,” said Cope. “It maybe one year, it may be 10. I don’t know. My parents raised me very well and they’ve motivated me to make sure I get my degree, because I know that soccer is not going to last forever. So when that is done, I’ll have my finance degree to fall back on. But in the time being, my goal is to play professionally for as long as I can.”
Looking to extend his senior season, Cope and the Spartans kept their tournament hopes alive as they survived their seventh double-overtime game of the season. Assisting on a game-winning goal from Tim Kreutz, Cope continues to lead his team as they advance to the Sweet 16 for second time in his career.
With storylines like his, many have had their fair share of words to describe Kevin Cope. However, he only needs one to define the person he has become.
“Determined,” Cope said. “I have very high standards, not only for myself, but for others. I strive to be perfect, I know that’s not possible, but that’s my goal. I’m determined to do my best in whatever it may be. How I go about my day, in every day activities, I’m determined to make the best of it and be optimistic, move forward and continue to progress.”