Jeep senior perseveres in goal to play

Olivia Corya/The Herald
As a senior, Zach Schepers, left, completed his mission to play varsity soccer as the Northeast Dubois senior battled through a chronic ailment that left him unable to walk around age 10. Schepers has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which still causes his knees and ankles to swell although he still played 20 to 30 minutes per match this season. He was dealt another dose of bad luck Saturday, sustaining a concussion that will keep him out of tonight’s sectional opener.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

Clive Williams knows the face is coming.

Each time the Northeast Dubois boys soccer coach calls for the substitution of Zach Schepers, it’s there, cemented angrily on the face of the senior captain. Why are you taking me out? Why now? Why ever?

“You know what I think? He’s missed these past how many years. And he’s only got this year to get it in,” Williams said. “I think that’s what he wants to do. He wants to get as much time on there as you can. Because he missed so much.”

Schepers has had an involuntarily short career as a varsity player. For him, success is defined by the journey.

At age 10, Schepers could barely walk. Excruciating pain often left him bedridden and, what’s worse, neither his family nor medical professionals could figure out what was wrong.

Finally, doctors diagnosed Schepers with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune illness that affects about 50,000 children in the United States. Though the condition affected him only from the waist down, it caused Schepers to miss half the school year in sixth and seventh grades.

“I hadn’t had any pain whatsoever, and then fifth grade happened,” Schepers recalled. “I (legitimately) could not walk. I couldn’t get out of bed I was so stiff.”

After experimenting with steroidal treatment for a short stint, Schepers’ parents, Lori and Brennan, decided to use natural treatment, mainly through extensive chiropractic therapy, to alleviate the pain and improve the condition that was causing him to miss three, sometimes four days of school each week.

The illness is one that fools his body into thinking it must fight a problem that doesn’t actually exist, Schepers said. His left knee and right ankle still swell dramatically with fluid, primarily after games and practices, deteriorating cartilage and leaving him in a painfully helpless state.

“In my knee, it’s like bones grinding against each other,” said Schepers, whose back frequently becomes misaligned as well because of the illness. “It’s bone-to-bone.”

By the time Schepers entered high school, the worst period of the illness was behind him. Work with a chiropractor was paying dividends, and Schepers decided to serve as team manager for Williams, who was in his second year as Jeep head coach.

However, the position left him somewhat restless, yearning to return to the sport he began playing at age 6.

“I just didn’t like not playing,” Schepers said. “I just wanted to play.”

Encouraged by Lucas Schulthies and several other Northeast Dubois players, Schepers tried out for the squad his junior year and made the team, but played mainly at the junior varsity level. He became occasionally disheartened, but his parents and girlfriend, Emilie Johnson, convinced him to stay the course.

Williams had left the Jeep program after Schepers’ freshman year, yet returned this season for his second stint as head coach.

Beginning with summer conditioning and continuing into the season, Williams saw a work ethic from Schepers that was unmatched by most.

And the results have spurred from there. Schepers has scored five goals on the season, including two goals in Thursday’s match against Salem, one being a 25-yard strike that Williams coined the “goal of the season.”

Yet success has been derived from things transcending scoring totals or the 20 to 30 minutes Schepers played every match, the senior said.

“It’s probably the hardest sport I could possibly do with having arthritis. I just feel good that I can do it,” Schepers said. “It’s the end of the season. I made it.”

Williams, who has been involved with soccer for more than four decades and played semi-professionally in England, said he’s never seen a player persist with a condition like this. Still, he sees himself in Schepers, particularly with his desire to never take a break.

“Zach has an inner strength that people don’t always see,” Williams said. “Because he wants to come out here. He wants to work hard. It’s a strength that if you could bottle it and send it to a lot of kids, it would be fabulous, wouldn’t it? If we could bottle that strength of character. That strength of person. To come off the field and to be always — doesn’t matter when I take him off, doesn’t matter how long he’s on the field for — he’ll come off with that face like, ‘I want to go back on.’ And then when I’m looking for somebody to go back on, he’s there. That scenario, nobody else is like that.”

Yet therein lies the dilemma for Williams: choosing just how much action to give Schepers, who takes hits at the striker position that occasionally make his coach cringe. So he substitutes for him. And sees the face once again.

“Sometimes, when he’s in pain, he’s still trying out there,” Williams said. “And I keep thinking, ‘Zach, come on. You need a break.’ He doesn’t want to come off. When he comes off, we all see that face when he comes off. He thinks we don’t see it, but we see it all the time.”

For Schepers, growing up in a society plagued by inactivity and obesity could have made choosing a path toward a similarly stagnant lifestyle very easy. Why not choose a lifestyle that would have allowed him to avoid the pain felt by playing soccer?

“I probably shouldn’t be running on it, because whenever I run on it, it puts more pressure on it, but, I don’t know,” Schepers said. “I just don’t like sitting on my butt that much.”

The thought of Schepers slowing down would be a shock to Williams.

“If he tells me he’s in pain and doesn’t want to play today — which he’s never done that — I think I’d fall off my chair,” he said.

In the team’s match with Corydon Central on Saturday, Schepers was involved in a head-to-head collision toward the end of the game, leaving him concussed. He will not play in today’s sectional game against Washington Catholic, the team that ended Northeast Dubois’ season last year.

A setback, for sure. Yet Schepers’ future remains promising.

Schepers has decided he wants to become a chiropractor because of his experience with arthritis. He participates in the Health Occupations Students of America program at Jasper High School, where students interested in careers in the medical field gain classroom and field experience.

As for the soccer field, Schepers has already triumphed.

“It’s the effort that he gives,” Williams said. “No one can take that away from him.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.

 




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