Try doing what Ben Kopecky does. I dare you. Try playing tennis on a state championship level with a backbone that’s twisted and splintered; a spine that’s shaped like a question mark with notches of bone breaking off.
The Rochester Lourdes senior knows he may face spinal fusion surgery someday, as a way to deal with the dueling maladies of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and spondylosis (a spinal defect in Kopecky’s lower back). The most amazing aspect of his story, however, is not his physical condition but his collection of tennis hardware.
Kopecky, already the owner of two Class A individual state titles, will attempt to win a third championship at the 2010 state tourney, June 8-10 at the Reed-Sweatt Tennis Center in Minneapolis. He is one of only 16 players in the 81-year history of the MSHSL boys’ tennis tournament to capture two championships.
Two previous individuals have won three boys’ crowns, and that feat hasn’t been accomplished in nearly 50 years. If Kopecky gets title No. 3 in a few weeks, not only will he become the third three-time champ in Minnesota history, he will become the third three-time champ from Rochester.
Dave Healey won titles in1953, 1954 and 1955 for Rochester High School, and Chuck Darley did the same in 1962, 1963 and 1964, also for Rochester High School (Rochester John Marshall opened in 1958 and Mayo opened in 1966.)
“It’s a privilege just to have the chance, to be in the position to be going for a third one,” Kopecky said during practice on a windy Wednesday in Rochester.
Kopecky is the second boys’ player from Lourdes to win a state championship; Jarret Cascino was the Class A winner in 2001. But his No. 1 goal for his senior season is being part of the first Lourdes boys’ squad to win a state team championship. That says a lot about a team captain who puts team before self.
“The kids kind of gravitate to him; he’s a good leader and he’s a fun guy,” Lourdes coach Kevin Rust said. “At the same time, he’s where he’s at because he’s worked at it.”
Kopecky is an experienced hand when it comes to playing at state. He made his tournament debut as an eighth-grade doubles player and advanced in singles for the first time as a freshman, finishing as the state runner-up despite playing with a sprained ankle – further evidence of his ability to play through physical problems.
Then came state championships as a sophomore and junior, putting him on the verge of title No. 3 this season. But ask Kopecky about the 2010 state tournament, and he’ll talk about the team first.
“The thing I’m most happy about this season is that the guys on the team worked so hard in the offseason and we’re way more motivated this year,” he said. “The guys have made it a better season. I come out every day and not only am I trying to make them better, they’re helping me.
“We know how good we can be, and we know right now we’re not there. But come state tournament time, we have to bear down and everybody has to have their game face on. We’re almost there. I’m trying to lead by example in that aspect. The entire team has that potential, to show their best.”
Rust points to Kopecky and fellow senior captains Connor Rust and Javon Bea as the Eagles’ experienced leaders. “We’ve got three seniors who have been on the team since seventh grade, and I’m sure they all have that same goal in mind,” he said of the championship aspirations.
Kopecky will play collegiate tennis at DePauw University, a Divison III school in Greencastle, Ind. When his college career is over, he knows spinal surgery may be in the cards. For now, he is vigilant about taking care of his body. He works on core strength and stretching. He has an inversion table at home, which flips him upside down and takes the tension off his back, and he also uses a Tens (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) unit.
The scoliosis – in Ben’s case a 49-degree spinal curvature – was discovered when he was in sixth grade. The spondylosis is a different matter; the bony notches attached to a lower vertebra are separated. “I think my right one is severed and all the pressure on my lower back is on the left one,” he said.
That condition was discovered after the state tournament when he was a sophomore.
“I felt something in my back,” he said. “It got worse and worse, and the only way I made it through finals of individuals was off of adrenaline. Because I was out for the next week.”
And then he adds, almost matter-of-factly, “It’s nothing that can really go away. But everybody’s got injuries.”
The thoughts of injuries and all other distractions evaporate when Ben is on the court. For a senior religion class, he wrote a paper about where tennis takes him.
“I wrote that tennis was my refuge,” he said. “When I’m in that state, nothing else can bother me. I just have one thing to focus on, and that’s when I feel the best. I can just put everything aside and focus on one goal.”
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