CLEVELAND – During a remarkable passing performance in Week 2 of the football season, Carter Kopet did the unimaginable. The Cleveland High School quarterback threw an interception. The planet did not shift on its axis.
“That’s not anybody’s fault but mine,” the 6-foot-2 senior said to co-head coach Erik Hermanson on the sideline. And on the Clippers’ next possession, Kopet did what Kopet does: He threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to classmate Austin Plonsky, one of seven scoring passes by Kopet in the first half. After completing 14 of 19 passes for 254 yards in those first two quarters, he did not play in the second half as the Clippers defeated Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart 63-7 in nine-man football.
Kopet might be the most dynamic high school football player in Minnesota. During his junior season he broke the state record for career touchdown passes (which is extended with each new TD toss) and he needs 215 yards to become Minnesota’s all-time leader in passing yards. Cleveland will play a home game against Madelia on Friday; Kopet will begin the game with 143 touchdown passes and 8,636 yards. Last season he threw for 54 touchdowns, one short of the single-season state record of 55.
He has been the Clippers’ starting quarterback since the first game of his ninth-grade season (as well as a starter on the basketball and baseball teams), and the football team has a record of 31-6 since then. They went 13-1 last year, losing to Grand Meadow in the Prep Bowl. Returning to U.S. Bank Stadium is the goal this season for everyone in the town of 700 northeast of Mankato.
“Our expectations are pretty much to get to the state tournament, get to that championship game and take the next step we weren’t able to take last year,” he said. “We lost some key seniors but we have some good young kids coming up. We’ve got the talent and the coaches; it’s going to be about the effort we put in and how things turn out at the end.”
The fact that Kopet is even playing football this fall is somewhat surprising. He blew out his left knee coming down from a dunk in a basketball game in mid-January, destroying the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus. He faced surgery and rehab and doctors told him he might not return to athletics for a year. That scenario – the town’s top athlete missing his senior football season and much of his senior basketball season for a team that also carries state tournament aspirations – was a thunderbolt.
“The whole town was pretty depressed,” Hermanson said. “It was in the middle of basketball season and everyone was thinking about the state basketball tournament. But right away he was into his rehab and he set a goal; he was going to be back the first day of practice. They told him, ‘No, you’ll be back for the first game, maybe.’ ”
Rehabbing his knee was a test unlike any Kopet had faced previously. He drove to the Twin Cities twice a week to work with therapists, and spent at least three hours a day working at home.
“I got to rehab and sleep, that’s about all,” he said. “I used to think I was a super-hard worker, but when you go through something like that you find out how much harder you have to work. They told me it would be six to 12 months, and I was cleared in 5 ½ months.”
The 2017 football season began with a 52-51 overtime loss at Spring Grove. After the Lions – who rallied from a three-touchdown deficit -- scored and kicked the extra point to open overtime, Cleveland scored and went for two. Kopet scrambled and was stopped about a foot short of the goal line.
“It was kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re not invincible,’ ” Kopet said. “In all sports we’ve been pretty successful lately. When you start thinking like that it almost gets to the point of thinking you can’t lose. Hopefully we learned from it. That bus ride home, the locker room, that’s what was special about this team. They don’t like to lose, and when it does happen it’s not a very fun night.”
With shifts in section assignments this season, Cleveland moved from Section 2 to Section 1, which includes four-time defending state champion Grand Meadow and Spring Grove. Also in Section 1 is Houston, which ended Grand Meadow’s 51-game winning streak last week.
It’s unfair to put all the hopes on one player’s shoulders, of course, but Kopet has plenty of help. Plonsky caught five passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns against Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart, Cade Olson had two catches (both for touchdowns), and Danny McCabe and Bryce Novak each caught one touchdown pass from Kopet. Novak also returned an interception 40 yards for a TD.
Kopet plays defense at times, but his spot in the Clippers’ no-huddle, shotgun, quick-strike offense is his most important role.
“When he was an eighth-grader we made sure to get him in key, real-game spots, where he had to play,” Hermanson said. “We had a senior quarterback and we made sure Carter got in because we knew he was going to be great.
“Not even counting his skills, you can see how much of a leader he is, helping all the young guys all the time. Everybody looks up to him and respects him. It’s like having another coach, and someone who is humble. We’ve never seen him be cocky or arrogant. He’s the kid you dream about coaching.”--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
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