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Published: March 17, 2006 11:53 pm

Kopf is serving up success at NU

Grand Island grad has been a surprise for the Purple Eagles

By Jonah Bronstein
Greater Niagara Newspapers

About a half-dozen tennis players tried out for the Niagara University men’s team in August, hoping to walk on to coach Ron Rambally’s squad. Fortunately for Rambally, he didn’t have to cut any of them.

Unwilling to endure the endless conditioning drills Rambally devoted the first week of practice to, each of the walk-ons chose to walk off — except for one, whom Rambally described as “a scrawny kid who kind of looked like a 12-year-old.”

“It was tough,” Steve Kopf said. “But I was determined to make the team.”

Nearly seven months later, the walk-on freshman from Grand Island is a surprising contributor for the Purple Eagles, 6-1 overall and 2-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Injuries to scholarship players in the fall thrust Kopf into the lineup. He struggled at first — Rambally thinks he was nervous — but has rebounded to win his last two matches at No. 5 and No. 6 singles, and, along with partner Marc Dickinson, his last three at No. 3 doubles.

“Every coach hopes that they are going to get some walk-on help,” Rambally said. “ ... But you don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Steve came out of nowhere; it blew my mind.”

In Rambally’s first full year as coach, NU is having more success with less talent than a year ago. Better team chemistry has been the key, which the coach partly attributes to Kopf.

“Our 1, 2 and 3 guys love hitting with Steve,” Rambally said. “He pushes them as much as they push him.”

Kopf said he and his teammates worked on their chemistry and skills during player-only practice sessions this winter at Sportsplex in North Tonawanda.

“Our whole team has improved a lot,” he said. “All of my strokes have gotten better. The level of play is so much higher, I have to keep up with the rest of the team.”

Kopf, an all-league selection at No. 2 singles in his junior and senior years with the Vikings, began playing tennis at age 5 at the South Hampton Tennis Club in Ontario. About five years ago, he began teaching tennis lessons to children in South Hampton, which has inspired him to follow in his mother’s footsteps and pursue a degree in education at NU. Mary Kopf is a second- and third-grade special education teacher at Huth Road Elementary School in Grand Island.

“I’m such a role model to the kids I teach tennis to,” he said. “I like it when kids look up to me. ... I think that’s what really got me interested in teaching.”

For now, Kopf is paying full tuition at NU, content just to be able to play his favorite sport at such a high level. Rambally can’t make any promises, but he hopes some scholarship money might be freed up for Kopf in the future.

“It’s going to be something we look at at the end of the year, to see if there is something we can do for him.” Rambally said. “ ... That part is a little bit out of my hands, but I’d love to see Steve get something for his hard work.”