Nothing better expresses what basketball teams need than Freedom and Unity, the motto of the state of Vermont. Let 'em play, but jeezum crow (as Vermonters say), make sure they look out for one another. Do both, and a team like the University of Vermont just might reach the NCAA tournament two years in a row after never having done so before. Might do it with the very coach who lost 50 of his first 58 games and couldn't beat the Division II school down the road. Might even do it with a homegrown star so lightly regarded in high school that his coach all but told the Catamounts' staff that it was wasting a scholarship.
The Vermont basketball team mustered for preseason practice last month just as the leaves around Lake Champlain were turning their most brilliant colors. Talk about your peak season: Catamounts senior Taylor Coppenrath, a 6'9" forward from West Barnet, Vt., is now a two-time America East player of the year and a preseason candidate for the Wooden Award, and his name is on the lips of NBA scouts. Coach Tom Brennan, who has decided to make his 19th season at Vermont his last, also dressed the Atlantic East player of the year of three seasons ago, senior point guard T.J. Sorrentine, when he took the Cats to Kansas last Friday, where they led by four points in the final five minutes before losing to the Jayhawks 68-61.
Vermont, which will also play North Carolina before Christmas, tried just such an into-the-lion's-den approach last year, only to open 0-4. But in one of those losses, at UCLA, Coppenrath sprang for 38 points and the Cats lost by one, vaulting the team and its star into the national conversation. They remained there all season--through the five weeks starting in mid-February that Coppenrath sat out with a broken left wrist; through his first game back, the America East tournament final, in which he scored a myth-making 43 points wearing a soft cast; and through the Catamounts' NCAA first-round loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.
All of which guarantees another season of attention for Vermont, hardly something its coach dreads. When Brennan says, "We're a program now," he's referring to his Cats, but he might just as well be talking about Corm and the Coach, the wildly popular morning drive-time show he co-hosts with radio deejay Steve Cormier on WCVP-FM. It has made Brennan so familiar to so many Vermonters that, with minutes to go in a tight game, fans will wander down to the Cats' bench and ask, "Where we going afterward, Coach?"
"He wants everyone in the state to feel [the team's success] is theirs," says Brennan's brother Jim. "That's the way he enjoys something. When we were kids I remember him saying, 'I hope I can be a star someday, because I know I could handle it.'"
The two archetypes of contemporary Vermont are the native (with his pickup truck, antigovernment politics and laconic manner) and the flatlander (with his Volvo, alien views and fast-talking ways). They clash often enough that it sometimes seems the state's motto should be Freedom versus Unity. The two poles are embodied by Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and Chittenden County, homes to West Barnet and the university, respectively. Shortly after signing Coppenrath, Brennan took his recruit to an Italian restaurant--and no sooner had they placed their orders than one of the two cooks, angry over something, quit. With the flatlander coach and the native player each playing to type, their small talk didn't begin to cover the two hours before the food came. "It was painful," says Brennan. "And it had to have been worse for him because he had to listen to me."
Brennan went over better than he thought. "He was funny," remembers Coppenrath, who didn't yet realize that he had signed up for several years' worth of on-the-air wake-up calls.
The village of West Barnet huddles near several stores, a historic mill and the white clapboard church whose lawn Coppenrath mowed as a kid. When he and two of his friends hit the sixth grade, their dads led a successful effort to pave over the spot where the grange hall once stood and to raise a basket standard at each end. That the project involved approval of something Northeast Kingdomers despise--a tax increase--underscores the widespread support for basketball and the local kids' playing it. It wasn't long before Barnet Elementary enacted "the Taylor Coppenrath rule," which required kids to have a change of clothes available in case they got too sweaty at recess. In the meantime George Coppenrath hauled his son up and down the Eastern Seaboard, trolling for competition. When Taylor was 11, he and his Vermont age-group champs lost all six of their games at an AAU tournament in Florida; a few years later, at a point-guard camp in Pennsylvania, Taylor was rated second among 50 campers.
Brennan and his assistants liked Coppenrath's large frame and light feet, as well as the soft hands he had developed as a soccer goalie. Still, entering the 2000--01 season, they handed him a redshirt. "He was the slowest and weakest guy we had," says associate head coach Jesse Agel, "but in sprints he touched every line. He's honest and hardworking. Vermonters don't like shortcuts." By December, with the Catamounts on their way to an 11--17 record, the coaches realized they were wasting their best player in practice.
The following fall Coppenrath, who had put on 45 pounds and weighed 240, began deploying feet, hands and frame, in that order, in his dogged way--getting position, fielding an entry pass and launching into a quick move, which often led to a foul and what he calls "old-style three-point plays." The course of Vermont basketball changed forever. At the West Barnet General Store, where George Coppenrath leaves game tapes for neighbors to check out, clippings about Taylor's exploits hang next to the picture of a local guy with the 19-pound, 38-inch trout he pulled from Harvey's Lake, which itself sits a few steps from the Coppenrath homestead.