The Boston Globe Friday, November 24, 2006
Koepplin gets his kicks with UMass
By Bob Duffy - Globe Staff
So years later, when it came time to pick a school, he naturally choose ...
As renowned an educational bastion as Boston University is, it doesn't have much of a football reputation, largely because it doesn't have a football team. For someone in search of the gridiron ambiance, BU probably wasn't the ideal choice. Koepplin was like a big-game hunter who goes on safari to Manhattan.
And his misgivings weren't merely vague musings. Koepplin didn't just want to experience a football atmosphere, he wanted to be inside it, as he had been for one year in high school. Once he recognized this, he realized it might be a good idea for a would-be placekicker to have a place to kick.
Three years later and at the other end of the Mass. Pike, he has found it here. As the first-year kicker for the University of Massachusetts, Koepplin has played a major role in the Minutemen's march to the Atlantic 10 championship and a berth in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs tomorrow at noon against their Patriot League counterpart, Lafayette, at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.
His 13 field goals constitute the seventh-highest total in school history - for a career, never mind a season. His 39 extra points - 38 in a row before his lone miss last week against hometown Hofstra as UMass concluded a 10-1 regular season - are one shy of the school record. He hit his first two college field goals in a cauldron, before some 30,000 Middies at Division I-A Navy, where the third-ranked Minutemen suffered their lone loss. And he wound up a second-team conference all-star.
All rather unlikely extracurriculars for a junior who has been kicking for only four years, and at almost as many schools - St. Anthony's High in South Huntington, N.Y.; Nassau Community College in nearby Garden City; and now UMass. But to Koepplin , who didn't pick up, or kick up, a football until he suffered soccer burnout after his junior season of high school, this is destiny. It's just that he had to manufacture it.
He matriculated at BU as a history major, but he didn't realize when he arrived on Comm. Ave. that he'd be minoring in wistfulness.
"I like competing, I like winning, and I love football," he says. "It's important to me. I feel I have a talent and that I could get the job done. I wanted to prove I could. I wasn't that great in high school, and I wanted to be a part of something special. Everyone watches 'Rudy,' you know what I mean?"
John Anselmo didn't. Koepplin showed up unannounced in the coach's office, a week before tryouts, after transferring to Nassau from BU. He informed Anselmo he was a kicker, but Koepplin acknowledges that was more concept than fact. He was a veteran of one high school field goal.
"I was OK but I was pretty raw," he says. " I didn't have much technique. I was just a soccer player kicking."
Koepplin still wasn't a bona fide kicker, though he did win the kickoff job in his third game as a freshman. And last season he handled all the legwork, earning all-league first-team punting and second-team placekicking honors as Nassau won the Northeast Football Conference title and went to a junior college bowl in Iowa.
"I knew that second year would be my year," says Koepplin. "That was my only real season."
But not enough of one, he figured. He was 6 of 10 on field goals and 33 of 34 on conversions - "not the type of year that gets you noticed, that's what I needed, an outstanding season."
Lacking that on his resume, and with his JUCO career finished, Koepplin went about recruiting colleges instead of vice versa. He scoured the Internet for schools with kicking needs and sent letters to those that met his criterion. Meanwhile, Anselmo hooked Koepplin up with his friend Steve Tirrell, the UMass special teams coach.
"He came across really well," says Tirrell. "He looked me right in the eye and shook hands. I could see he was a great kid looking for a great challenge."
Personality doesn't guarantee accuracy, so Koepplin continued to go about developing - and selling - himself with monomaniacal fervor.
He had cleared bookstore shelves of kicking manuals and downloaded cybertips from the Web. He took up Yoga to refine the two key kicking ingredients: flexibility and serenity. And he finally got himself noticed for something other than a firm handshake when he won a kicking competition at Rutgers, hitting all eight of his field goals up to 50 yards.
That persuaded UMass coach Don Brown to bring him aboard, with no assurances that he'd be anything more than a back up - meaning idle - kicker. That was equivalent to job security for Koepplin.
"I'm always proving myself, to myself," he says. "I like to challenge myself."
In this instance, he was challenging incumbent Armando Cuko. That campaign seemed quixotic as his ambitions after Koepplin tore up his left meniscus, requiring knee surgery, last spring. But he rehabilitated with a vengeance, then capitalized when Cuko suffered a groin injury during preseason camp.
"Armando was out a good four weeks," says Tirrell, "and he could have reclaimed the job when he got healthy. But Chris just kept improving."
To the point of ultra-reliability. Koepplin has missed only five attempts, and three of them came against Villanova, since which he has nailed 10 of 12, including a long of 48 yards.
"He has such a cool demeanor," says Brown. "He's a cool customer under pressure. You know what you're going to get every time out there."
Generally, a successful kick, now that Koepplin knows his place. Finally.