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Monroe St. Mary CC junior Zach Cepo breaks MHSAA’s all-time assists record

By: Matthew B. Mowery, October 15, 2018, 6:30 pm

MONROE — Zach Cepo is one of those kind of players who’d rather set someone else up for the glory, and for the first two years of his high school career at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, he was perfectly fine with being the consummate assist man.

He set the MHSAA single-season record for helpers with 48 as a freshman, then tied it again as a sophomore, each season helping someone break the program’s record for goals.

But then two big classes of seniors graduated, taking with them the primary goal-scorers he’d been feeding for two seasons, leaving him with fewer experienced outlets for his passes to go to, and forcing him this season into more of a scoring role himself on a very young team.

Going into Monday’s postseason game, he had a career-high 24 goals to go with 12 assists.

“He’s got (24) against opponents where nobody’s going to do (anything but) double-team him, whack him. He’s taken on more (scoring responsibility). And we knew that. The first week of the season, all of the coaches said, ‘We need this out of you.’ That’s just not his game. He’s very much like I was, when I played in college, where I’d rather pass first than score,” said SMCC coach Goran Cepo, Zach’s father. “He’s embracing the new role. He’s embracing it, because it’s a whole different mindset to him. His teammates are learning to play around him. It’s not ‘Zach has the ball, and we’re going to stand and watch him dribble.’ Every day in practice, we work on runs, and creativity, and movement off the ball. They’re getting better.”

The last two assists of the regular season took him nearly a month to finally collect.

Why is that relevant?

Because with his first of two assists last Thursday against Romulus Summit Academy, Zach Cepo broke the MHSAA record for career assists with his 107th, passing Dansville’s Jay Witchell, who had 106 from 2007-10.

Zach Cepo beat two defenders wide, then crossed it to sophomore Jackson Lymond, who buried a shot inside the 18 for a goal in a 5-1 win.

Even though the math said that it was coming, breaking the record was never something the junior midfielder thought too much about.

“Me personally — this may sound like I’m making it up — but I never think about that stuff, honestly,” he said. “I’m obviously thrilled that I broke the record, but I never thought ahead, if that makes sense.”

Regardless of how many he adds in SMCC’s postseason run, Cepo still has another year to extend the record well beyond reach.

Somewhere, down the road, he admitted, it’ll be cool to look back and realize what he’s accomplished.

“It obviously will be (cool), because I’ll have something to look back and remember teams by. Every team is different, and every team is unique in its own way, so it gives me something, a way to remember each year,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been able to be done without the teammates I’ve had, obviously. I always had huge help.”

He did. Each of his first two years, he had a record-setting goal-scorer to feed.

Freshman year, it was Parker Brown, who scored a school-record 36 goals, before graduating and going on to Albion College. The next season, it was Rory Jorgensen, who broke Brown’s record with 38 goals, before moving on to John Carroll College.

His instant impact surprised even his dad, who knew he’d be productive … just not THAT productive.

“I tell you, we went to the preseason scrimmages (in 2016), and we tied Ann Arbor Greenhills, and he played well. The second game, against Ithaca, he scored five goals. And these were just turning guys inside-out, chip the goalkeeper. I mean, I knew he’d contribute his freshman year — I think we all did — but I don’t think we even expected what we saw with the composure.

It’s the level he’s played at since he’s he was seven, and he stepped out here, and the only thing he lacked was the size and speed. But the decision-making and composure … and we had a spot for him on that team that fit his role perfectly,” Goran Cepo said. “He knows he came into a great situation — but we tell the kids all the time that the kids we graduated aren’t coming back. Rory’s not coming back back to score 38. They get practice shirts, and we always start with saying ‘Team 34.’ This is your team. Respect the people that have come before you, but this is you guys right now.”

The team right now plays as many as five freshmen and six or seven sophomores. There are just three seniors on the roster.

It’s been something that both Cepos knew was coming.

“He and I talked about that a lot. He was pretty blessed with coming in as a freshman, that freshman year — he started every game, played every minute, but we probably had the best team we’ve ever had in this program. Last year was a little bit of a drop-off, but still a lot of good seniors back,” Goran Cepo said.

“He, and I give him credit — as his dad and his coach — he’s come into this with a very positive outlook. He’s probably the most skillful kid — in my eyes — the best player in Division 4 in the state. … We lost a game 6-0 (in September) to Riverview, and it was our inexperience. He’d walk around and talk to kids. So he’s taken on that role. It could be easy for a lot of kids to say ‘I’m the best on here,’ and pout, and not play hard.”

For someone who’s played since he was four or five, and has his first memory of playing for MASA (Monroe Area Soccer Association), it could be a hard pill to swallow.

Instead, Zach Cepo has merely adjusted his game.

“Definitely. With a whole bunch of freshmen and sophomores, it’s definitely a learning process. I figured between freshman and sophomore year, we were going to go down a little bit, and then between last year and this year, even more. It’s a process you get used to,” he said. “It was more easy with Rory (Jorgensen), because we already knew each other. I’d known him since I was really little, and we’d kind of had that background. These guys, we have to learn each other, and stuff like that. We’re still getting used to it.”

With 36 points this season (26 goals, 12 assists), Cepo sits just outside the top 20 on the MHSAA’s all-time points scored list with 165, headed into the postseason. Burt Lake Northern Michigan Christian’s Aaron Chatfield (2009-12) holds that record at 296.

It’s conceivable that he could end up a good deal higher than that when his four years at SMCC is done, as well.

Does it blow his mind that his career has already been so historic?

“Yeah. A little bit,” he said.

Until last week, the most memorable assist Cepo had recorded was in districts last year, against Lutheran Westland. Like a pitcher who remembers the exact pitch sequence of a certain at-bat, or a quarterback who remembers the precise play call years later, he remembers exactly how it went.

“I think it was Daniel Cooke played me a ball in the middle. I turned, played a really quick ball over top to Rory Jorgensen,” Zach Cepo said. “It dipped right to him, he took a touch and finished it. Perfect play. I just always remember that. I can see it now.”

That may have been replaced by a new favorite memory now.

(Photo courtesy the Cepo family/Amy Alfredson)