Choosing to play basketball rather than football, the four-year, two-sport Bradley Central starter signed NCAA Division II scholarship papers to take the court for Lee University.
“It came down to what I felt was the best opportunity for me,” Copeland explained. “Lee is a great school, with a beautiful campus and a great (athletic) program. I like the coaches. It feels like a good fit for me.”
Copeland is part of the local school’s first NCAA Division II recruiting class as the Flames move up from many years of success at the NAIA national level.
“We are thrilled to get Bryce. He’s a winner. He has a unique approach in his competitiveness that will fit well with us,” declared Flame head coach Tommy Brown, who has compiled a 341-161 career record, including a 30-4 mark this past season.
Taking the Flames to their eighth straight NAIA National Tournament, Brown was a finalist for the 2013 Don Meyer National Coach of the Year Award.
“Anybody who comes from Coach Kent Smith’s Bradley program is a tough player and Bryce exemplifies that,” Coach Brown stated. “He is a lot better athlete than a lot of people give him credit for. By that I mean he does a lot of thing people don’t realize or notice to make a team better.”
“It’s exciting to be a part of the transition,” commented Copeland. “They play an up-tempo style of game and push the ball up the floor, which fits well with the way I like to play.”
While playing for veteran Bradley Central coach Kent Smith, Copeland led Bradley to 83-44 record, including back-to-back TSSAA Sectional Game appearances to go along with the Region 3-AAA title in February and the 2012 District 5-AAA crown.
In his final season with the Black-and-Gold, the 6-foot shooting/point guard averaged 19 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.4 steals per game. He shot 54 percent (157-of-293) from the two-point area and made 62 3-pointers on his way to a career total of 1,689 points, placing him eighth on the all-time Bear list. He missed a total of 14 games in four years, with 11 of those coming after he broke his arm in the final 2011 football playoff game, two weeks before the hoop season started.
He and younger sister Brooke became the first brother-sister combo in Tennessee history to earn all-state honors in the same season as both were named to the prestigious Class AAA squads by the Tennessee Sports Writer’s Association earlier this month.
“Playing at Bradley has been great. With my dad (Brian) and uncles (Chad, Brent) having played here, growing up I wanted to play here, too. I always wanted to be a Bear,” remarked Copeland, who turned down an offer to play for a private school. “By going to Lee, I get to stay here (in Cleveland) to play, plus I can go see Brooke and (younger brother) Cole play at Bradley, as well.” Cole Copeland will be a freshman at BCHS in the fall.
“It’s been a fast four years,” declared Coach Smith. “He scored 30 points against McCallie as a freshman. From the first time he came in as a freshman, he’s been a leader, on and off the court. He’s a winner.”
“It was easy to see from the beginning that he has the ‘it’ factor,” the veteran Bear mentor praised. “I’ve been coaching here for 17 years and he’s one of the best I’ve ever had. He has composure, a strong competitive spirit and a high ‘game’ IQ.”
“His No. 1 goal is winning. His character on and off the court reminds me a lot of (former Bear and Belmont standout) Justin Hare,” Coach Smith assessed. “He will go into Lee and accept the challenge of college ball and compete right away. Since he will be able to focus on just one sport, his best basketball is ahead of him.”
“I’ve said it before, but people just don’t realize the huge impact Bryce has had on both the basketball and football programs here at Bradley,” Smith proclaimed. “He will be missed greatly by both programs.”
“He is the ultimate everything — team player, great leader, great athlete,” echoed Bradley head football coach Damon Floyd. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He has the intangibles both on and off the field that will be so hard to replace.”
“I remember the second game he started his freshman year was against (arch rival) Cleveland. I was going crazy on the sideline and he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, calm down. We’ve got this,’” Coach Floyd stated. “Then he went out and lead us to an overtime victory that ended a long losing streak (12 games) to them.”
The 27-26 win in Sept. of 2009 was the first for the Bears on the Raiders’ home field since 1977.
“He never doubted that we could win any game we played,” the gridiron Bear mentor continued. “He played his sophomore season with a pulled hamstring, never missed a game and was voted as the District Quarterback of the Year.”
Copeland was chosen as the District 5-AAA Offensive Player of the year his junior season and the overall District Player of the Year this past season.
On the gridiron, the southpaw quarterback had one of the most prolific offensive career’s in Bradley’s 96-year history, posting 8,204 total yards and accounting for 85 touchdowns, both numbers are likely school records.
He completed 480-of-820 (59 percent) passes for 6,474 yards (a southeast Tennessee area record), including 61 for scores, plus he gained 1,730 career rushing yards, finding paydirt 24 times on the ground.
Under his field direction, the football Bears have made the past three TSSAA state playoffs and compiled a 27-16 record to snap a string of eight straight losing seasons (14-46).
Copeland had football offers from Carson-Newman, Tusculum, Cumberland and Western Kentucky, plus hoop opportunities with the United States Military Academy at West Point (N.Y.), Tennessee Tech, Belmont and Houston Baptist University.
“I felt like because of my size, I had a better chance continuing to play basketball (in college), plus no one is tackling you,” laughed Copeland. “Basketball is an easier transition to the next level. I love both games the same, but felt like basketball was a better opportunity.”
With a 3.95 grade point average, Copeland also excels in the classroom, making straight A’s at BCHS with his lone B coming from an advanced math class he took as an eighth-grader that was for high school credit.
Copeland is the fourth player Coach Brown has signed for next year, joining Jamal Worthington, an all-stater from Bledsoe County, Notre Dame 5-foot-9 point guard Stedman Ford and 6-foot-3 Lenior City quarterback/shooting guard Jordan Hall, who signed during the early period.
“If we (Lee) start a football team in the next few years, we’ve already got them a couple of really good quarterback (Copeland and Hall),” Brown joked.
As far as the type of players Brown is looking for with the switch to the Gulf South Conference, he said, “Moving from NAIA to NCAA Division II will change our recruiting a little bit, in that we will go after more high school players, instead of transfers (because NCAA transfers will have to sit out a year before becoming eligible). Competition wise, its about the same. The Top 10 NAIA teams could compete with anybody.”
Bledsoe County coach Mark Cagle said Worthington has had to overcome a lot of adversity in becoming a high school standout. “He suffered injuries his first three seasons in high school, but he refused to quit and his work ethic has helped him improve quickly.
Worthington is a 6-foot-4, 190 pound wing player. “He’s a really good athlete with a very big upside,” said Brown. “He already has a college-ready body and could contribute right away.”
Worthington averaged over 17 points, six assists, four blocks and 10 rebounds per game for the Warriors.
“He is mentally tough and always a team player,” said Cagle. “I think he will be a quality college player.” The Warriors won the district title and lost to a strong DeKalb County club in the semifinal round of the region tournament.
“I chose Lee because I felt welcomed and accepted as a new family member,” said Worthington. “I feel the coaching staff will show me how to better myself on and off the court. I’m so excited; this has been a highlight of my life.”
— The Lee Sports Information Department contributed to this story.