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(Globe Photo / Alden Pellett)

(Globe Staff File Photo / Barry Chin)
Taylor Coppenrath (shown at right) is a focus of attention at the West Barnet, Vt., general store.

Vt. town hangs on hero's every move

Coppenrath one of a kind

WEST BARNET, Vt. -- It's almost mud season in this tiny town without traffic lights, just up the frost-heaved road from Mosquitoville. Soon, the ice fishermen will haul their huts off the lake and the syrup makers will start boiling the maple sap in their sugar shacks. The kids will return to the basketball court across from the white clapboard church in the village center, and sometimes after they work up an appetite they will stroll over to the 150-year-old general store for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

In a picture postcard way, life will go on as usual in this idyllic corner of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. But townspeople know better.

One day soon -- perhaps as early as Friday in the NCAA Tournament -- a native son, Taylor Coppenrath, will play his last basketball game for the University of Vermont. The self-made, 6-foot-9-inch sensation could become the first native Vermonter to reach the pinnacle of professional basketball and take his game to the NBA (he would relish playing for the Celtics, who have their eye on him). Or he could play in Europe for a princely sum.

Either way, being a fan of Vermont basketball as West Barnet knows it -- indeed, as the entire Green Mountain state knows it -- will never be the same.

"It's very sad," Paula Stevenson said at Paula's Place, one of two village stores where townsfolk and grocery delivery drivers from miles away have stopped the last four years to borrow videotapes of Coppenrath's games. "I hope we can still find a way to follow him, wherever he goes."

In a storybook rise, Coppenrath burst from West Barnet to rescue Vermont basketball from a century of irrelevance and capture national acclaim as one of the era's most intriguing collegiate stars. As he prepared yesterday to lead the underdog Catamounts into the NCAA Tournament Friday against Syracuse in Worcester, Coppenrath ranked as the country's second-leading scorer, a three-time Player of the Year in the America East conference, and a finalist to join another small-town prodigy, Larry Bird, as a recipient of the John R. Wooden Award as the nation's most outstanding college player.

In Vermont, he is bigger than Ben or Jerry. Bigger than Howard Dean. Bigger than Phish, the von Trapp family, the ghosts of Ethan Allen, Rudyard Kipling, and Calvin Coolidge.

"I just hope Taylor doesn't want to run for governor next year," said first-term governor Jim Douglas.

Why aim so low?

"Taylor for president," read the message on a placard at Patrick Gym in Burlington Saturday as Coppenrath scored 37 points to lead Vermont past Northeastern for the America East championship and a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

State Republicans are so enamored of Coppenrath's name recognition that they have recruited his father, George, as a leading candidate for Douglas, a Republican, to appoint to succeed State Senator Julius Canns, who died last month. But Taylor Coppenrath's immediate ambitions are limited to the hardwood.

Stacked high on a table in the family home -- overlooking a picturesque dam that harnesses Harvey's Lake and spills into South Peacham Brook -- are nearly 20 written requests from sports agents eager to represent the cult hero. George Coppenrath has formed an advisory committee to narrow the field to five or six, and Taylor plans to sign with one of them before he attends the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament for prospective NBA players next month.

"The kid can certainly make a living in pro ball," said NBA scouting director Marty Blake. "He has done a remarkable job of making himself into a basketball player. He's going to get every opportunity to play in the NBA."

Coppenrath, 23, would land a guaranteed contract if he were to exceed expectations and become one of the 30 players selected in the first round of the NBA's June draft. If he were to go in the second round, he would be more likely to begin his pro career in Europe, as Concord, N.H.'s, Matt Bonner did before he joined the Toronto Raptors this season.

Blake said every NBA team has heeded his advice to scout Coppenrath. The Celtics watched him work out in Vermont last October and saw him score 28 points at Northeastern in January to lead the Catamounts to a 75-60 victory.

"The guy is Mr. Productivity," said Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. "He wins. He puts points on the board. He rebounds. And he's done it against the best teams on their schedule."

Coppenrath struck for 38 points last season at UCLA, one of the five highest-scoring performances in the 40-year history of Pauley Pavilion. And he scored 23 points this year against Kansas, then the top-ranked team in the country, in Lawrence, Kan.

"He's very strong around the basket, he's got a mid-range jumper, and he's one of the best offensive rebounders at any level in college basketball," Wallace said. "You also have to be impressed with what he has meant to turning Vermont into such a winning program. That always catches your eye as an NBA evaluator, the impact a player has on the bottom line: winning."

A model player
When Coppenrath worked out for the Celtics last fall in Burlington, he rammed home a dunk that captured the attention of several pros, including Walter McCarty.

"Rattle that rim, big fella!" McCarty hollered, jumping to his feet. "Rattle that rim!"

Coppenrath, as unpretentious as the town he put on the map, privately cherished the moment.

"I'm far from doing what Walter McCarty has been able to do," he said, "but that was a little confidence booster."

As for the Celtics, Coppenrath said, "I would just love to get a chance to play there. Being so close [to home], that would be a lot of fun."

After all, he noted, "They had Larry Bird there."

Coppenrath is no Bird, who all but singlehandedly led Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA finals before he signed with the Celtics for $3.25 million over five years, then the largest rookie contract in NBA history. But the big fella from West Barnet has come far from his regional high school, St. Johnsbury Academy, where he didn't make the varsity until his junior year and where only two colleges, Vermont and Albany, offered him a full basketball scholarship. Now, as he appears headed for a big payday on one side of the Atlantic or the other, Coppenrath has become a model for college coaches trying to squeeze the most out of their players.

"He's what college basketball players should strive to be," Boston University coach Dennis Wolff said. "He deserves the opportunity to prove himself at the next level. I wouldn't sell the kid short."

By all accounts, Coppenrath's success springs largely from his work ethic, which he appears to owe in part to his parents. His father doubled for many years as the town's fire chief, answering alarms in the dead of the night, while maintaining a small insurance business. And his mother, Sue, raised three children while she helped run the family business and served on the school board.

"The thing that amazes me about Taylor Coppenrath is that he never quits working," said Northeastern coach Ron Everhart. "He has never taken a play off in his life."

That started at a tender age. To this day, Coppenrath recalls traveling with an all-star team from Vermont to an 11-and-under AAU tournament in Florida. As jarring as it was to lose every game, Coppenrath said he received "a wake-up call" when he saw an 11-year-old from Memphis dunk the ball.

Stunned, Coppenrath committed to making himself better, a pledge he has yet to break.

"I realized there are players out there who are better than me and probably always will be," he said. "I knew I had to do the best I could wherever I went."

'A rock star here'
After he sat out his freshman year at Vermont to work on his game and gain muscle, he emerged as the conference Rookie of the Year. Then he matched Reggie Lewis, the late Northeastern and Celtics star, by winning three straight conference Player of the Year awards. Now he is a finalist for the Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School) Award, given to the nation's top senior player, in addition to the Wooden award.

"I never want the reason I might not be successful to be that I didn't work as hard as I could," Coppenrath said. "I guess it comes from not wanting to disappoint people."

He applied the same approach to preparing for a career after basketball. A math major on the secondary education track, Coppenrath is scheduled to graduate this year and has begun preparing for the test to receive his Vermont teaching certificate. He worked as a student math teacher last year at Colchester High School and delivered the commencement address at Winooski High School.

"He's a rock star here," said Vermont coach Tom Brennan. "But what makes him so impressive is that he faces such an immense amount of pressure every day of his life, and yet he never lets anybody down in the classroom or on the court."

Or in West Barnet. Now that the annual town meeting has passed and the snowmobile club has held its last bean supper of the season, townspeople have at least one more of Coppenrath's games to galvanize them. At least one more videotape to share with neighbors. At least one more game to discuss over the homemade strawberry rhubarb pie at the general store and the maple sugar treats at Paula's Place.

"Thank you, Taylor," the sign says outside the village store.

But the pleasure is his.

"Knowing that I'm one of them," he said of the state's love for him, "it sends chills down your spine."

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