PREP FOOTBALL: Huskies' heart & soul
JACKSON -- Inserted into the starting lineup of Jackson County Central's varsity football team midway through his eighth-grade season, Zach Copley remained there and contributed greatly on both sides of the ball for many very good Huskies' teams throughout his career.
Copley, who is now a senior, was much bigger physically than the rest of his teammates on the junior-high squad in 2008, and JCC head varsity coach Tom Schuller --along with several of his loyal assistants and many players in the upper classes --took notice.
"He was so big as an eighth-grader, and we thought that he might hurt somebody playing at that level," Schuller said. "A lot of the older kids on the team, at that time, also saw how big and how good he was and, actually, demanded that we bring him up to the varsity team."
The Huskies waited until after the third game of the season against Southwest Conference power Marshall to throw Copley into the mix.
"My friends in middle school were upset that I was playing with the high school team," Copley said. "But I couldn't really help it because my size was so big and more advanced than everyone else. It was tough being away from my friends."
Copley's friends soon joined him on the varsity roster, and together they enjoyed lots of success on Friday nights. JCC won 78 percent of its games over the last four years, sporting an overall record of 35-10 (20-4 in conference play) during that span.
The Huskies' season ended with a loss to Luverne in the Section 3AA tournament in 2009, 2010 and 2011, but JCC prevailed with a thrilling 35-28 victory over the Cardinals in this year's section championship game -- advancing to the state tournament for the first time since 2001.
Copley, who unfortunately was unable to play in the state tournament due to a serious leg injury that he suffered in the section finals, is The Captain of the 2012 Daily Globe All-Area Football Team for his and his team's outstanding performance this season and throughout his career.
"I am speechless to have this honor," Copley said. "I have had to work so hard for something for five years, and it's pretty crazy that I am the player of the year for the area. It shows that hard work and dedication pays off."
Listed as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound tight end and defensive lineman on this year's roster, Copley certainly made an impact on both sides of the ball and was a huge reason why JCC has been so good for so long.
"Zach is a great kid and really had a great career for our football program," Schuller said. "He was an outstanding run blocker from the tight end position and also had the ability to run routes and make plays in the passing game for us. Defensively, he played everywhere and always brought a physical presence."
Copley played primarily at defensive end -- his best position on defense according to Schuller -- this season, but also saw time at defensive tackle, linebacker and safety throughout his career.
Copley also excelled in JCC's multi-dimensional offensive arsenal at tight end -- his favorite position overall. He had 19 receptions for 614 yards and scored eight touchdowns this year, averaging a remarkable 32.3 yards per catch and earning SWC Offensive Back of the Year honors.
Copley finished his career near the top of the all-time leaderboard at JCC with 19 touchdown catches (tied for first), 102 receptions (second) and 1,975 yards receiving through the air (second) in addition to helping block for several 1,000-yard running backs over the years.
"The tight end is the key to the whole offense," said Copley, who credited much of his development to the continuity of having the same coaching staff for all five years on the varsity. "You have to know the running plays, the blocking schemes and the passing tree. You just have to know where every player is going to have to be at the right time to be successful."
Copley is a three-sport athlete who is hoping to return to the basketball court and baseball field at some point this year, depending upon how he recovers following surgery on his leg. He is also currently being recruited to play college football, with Augustana College and the University of Sioux Falls among the schools interested.
"Zach likely played more high school varsity football games than anyone else in the history of Jackson," Schuller said. "He had the size and athletic ability, plus he really worked hard to be a great player. I'd be hard-pressed to name another player who had a more impressive high school football career for us than Zach did."