SWANTON – Taylor Coppenrath does not sit on the bench.
Coppenrath, with his 6-foot-9-inch frame, instead casts a shadow as he skirts the sideline, pacing back and forth, his body movement in sync with the rhythms of the game.
A high-arcing 3-point attempt? Coppenrath torques his body, as if his angling during the shot’s trajectory will somehow guide the ball through the hoop.
The officials miss a call? Coppenrath throws his hands up and argues the alleged grievance.
One of his players makes a costly or mental mistake? Coppenrath emphatically slaps his hands, unafraid to unload on said player.
Unhappy with the result on a possession? Coppenrath’s gait extends, taking three massive stomps toward the baseline while voicing his displeasure loud enough for the bench to understand its meaning.
Meet Taylor Coppenrath, the coach. He bears only a superficial resemblance to Taylor Coppenrath, the player.
Famously humble, reserved and unflappable when the state fell in love with him as the University of Vermont’s homegrown star during its golden era 15 years ago, Coppenrath is now deep into the next chapter of his life.
Since retiring from a 10-year professional basketball career in 2015, Coppenrath has arrived at a place that feels worlds apart from wowing sold-out Patrick Gym crowds, beating Syracuse in the NCAA tournament and raking in league titles and MVP honors on the European circuit. Now, the Catamount legend is in his second year as the girls basketball coach at Missisquoi High School (Highgate, Vt.), where he also teaches math.
He’s the same modest, down-to-earth person Vermont fans rallied behind as he lifted the UVM program to national renown. But there’s no denying the 37-year-old has made a personal transformation as he pours his brand of passion into the downtrodden program from Swanton.
“He didn’t say anything for five years when he was with me and now he’s coaching them up, he really is,” former UVM coach Tom Brennan said this week. “Sometimes you tend to think that people that are laid back don’t take as much pride as people who are Type A and go 100 miles an hour. That was never the case for him, he just didn’t exhibit that type of emotion, he did things quietly.
“But he’s taking great pride in what he’s doing there.”
Changing the culture at Missisquoi
Hired in the summer of 2017, Coppenrath took over a Thunderbirds program without a playoff win since he led the Catamounts to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 2003.
But playoff success was the least of Coppenrath’s worries: The three-time America East player of the year inherited MVU’s 35-game losing streak from the previous regime.
“You could say we were starting at the bottom, not much for expectations,” Coppenrath said. “And sometimes that’s a good thing, we can work hard and keep progressing.”
Then Coppenrath and the Thunderbirds won his coaching debut, a 43-41 triumph over Hazen, a home game with Brennan in attendance.
“I went to one of his first practices and (the players) had no idea who I was,” recalled Brennan, “but I said to them, ‘I just want to tell you something ladies: what has happened is God has taken the very best male basketball player ever to play in this state and dumped him in your lap. You don’t know how lucky you are to have this guy coaching you.'”
But truly getting players to compete for all 32 minutes was a season-long challenge. Sustained winning, Coppenrath hoped, could only come once a new identity had been established.
“Their body language was more like, ‘Oh, here we go again, it’s going to be a loss or a blowout,'” Coppenrath said. “It took a huge amount of time during last season to get over that hurdle and say we need to come out and fight until the buzzer sounds.”
MVU finished the 2017-18 season with three wins, earned the final playoff spot in Division II, its first taste of postseason basketball in five years, and fell to No. 1 Fair Haven by 14 points in the opening round.
“Once we started to believe in ourselves, we made a lot of growth last year,” Coppenrath said.
MVU sees improvement this winter
MVU has increased its win total by two games from last year entering Friday’s regular-season finale at Vergennes. At 5-14, the Thunderbirds can do no better than the No. 13 seed when the tournament pairings are announced Monday.
But the sophomore- and junior-heavy Thunderbirds — all of whom came to the game well after their coach put UVM on the basketball map — have turned a corner in the eyes of principal Jay Hartman.
“When they lose, they are unhappy that they lost. I think on other occasions over the years maybe there was a sense of resignation that the outcome was already determined,” said Hartman, also MVU’s longtime softball coach. “This year they have been very competitive. I think that’s had a big impact.”
The Thunderbirds put together a four-game winning streak last month, all by double digits, and more than held their own in recent close defeats to Division I’s Mount Mansfield and North Country.
This is not a worst-to-first story, but progress is progress. Assistant coach Tessa Massett said it starts with Coppenrath’s approach and getting players to trust it.
“He’s good at instilling passion into our players and hard work and grit and just the mental challenges we’ve come upon in the past and getting them to buy in and work through those things,” Massett said. “He’s been really successful with that.”
Macayla Langlois, a promising post player, says it’s working.
“He’s changed the program entirely for the better,” said Langlois, a junior. “We are winning more games, he’s actually helping us and teaching us. It motivates us to do better.”