BOGACZYK: Cooper's Confidence a Main Herd Ingredient
The Word on the Herd-March 18, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - As one among a trio of Marshall softball captains this season, Emileigh Cooper could wear a "C" on her jersey in addition to the memorial-patch SJK of late MU President Stephen J. Kopp.
Or, perhaps Cooper could wear that "C" to reflect what she and Coach Shonda Stanton say is the core of the senior's game -- confidence.
"I'm not saying at all that I have the strongest mental game," Cooper said, "but I have all the confidence in the world that if I do have a weak moment, I'll be right back out of it."
Cooper's two-run, walk-off home last Saturday gave Marshall a 10-inning Conference USA victory over Western Kentucky in a game that was resumed from a day earlier. It was a special moment in a Herd career that began with the same kind of confidence that Cooper takes onto the diamond daily.
She arrived at Marshall as a walk-on from Jackson, Ohio. Her travel team coach - former Herd outfielder Kelli Hall - had talked to Stanton about Cooper, who one late July 2012 day walked into Stanton's office at Dot Hicks Field and said she wanted a spot on the team.
"I'm from a very small hometown, and some people never thought I'd play Division I softball," said Cooper, whose team plays a 2 p.m. home doubleheader against Ohio on Thursday. "But that was my goal and I went to see Coach Stanton. I was technically a walk-on, but some players had left the team and she got me some academic money.
"I wanted to prove I belonged here, and she gave me confidence. I worked at it and as a freshman I was a pinch-runner and same thing as a sophomore. As a junior last season, I was a starter and I'm starting this year, so it's definitely been a better experience than I thought it would.
"I kind of figured maybe I'd just be a pinch-runner and maybe get an at-bat in some situations. But once I got here and was part of it, I thought I could fit in."
Cooper, 21, started at second base last season after playing short in her previous softball years. This season, she's in right field or at designated hitter. And from a .182 batting average in 2014, she has a .400 average (22-of-55) through 24 games this season.
Cooper had only 28 hits in her first three seasons, but she's an emotional team leader for the Herd (16-8, 3-3 C-USA). The same attitude that has pushed Cooper through her career surfaced back in late January when Stanton told her team that if a player wanted to be a captain, she had to stand and tell the team why.
"It's the same confidence," Cooper said. "My freshman year, I said, `I'm definitely doing this' when I decided I wanted to join the team. We're getting ready for the Diamond Club banquet and Coach Stanton says those of us who wanted to be captain had to tell the team.
"I figure I'm always yelling and screaming and getting emotional to help us and I decided to go for it and try to be a captain. I thought I may not be a starter this year, but I'm going to stand up there and tell my team why I want this. Maybe they won't vote for me, but I'm going for it."
Cooper got the vote, as did juniors Shaelynn Braxton and Alexandria Dawes. And as one of only two seniors on the Marshall team - and the lone senior starter - Cooper's drive and leadership are crucial, Stanton said.
It also comes in handy in situational softball, as was displayed along with her home run in last weekend's series with WKU.
"That mindset can make a big difference," Stanton said. "We had a conference the other day during a game and what we wanted to do as hit-and-run. Emileigh's up and she had executed one earlier in the game and we needed to get some offense going. So, I said to her, `What's it look like here, what do you think?'
"And the count's 1-0 and (WKU pitcher Miranda) Kramer is really great. (Cooper) says, "I'll do whatever you need. If I have two strikes, I'll do it, make it work. That's the difference with her mentality, her confidence. To have a kid that says, `Hey, I can do hit-and-run regardless of the count?'
"In the lineup we have right now - one that's very talented, but it's so young -- we don't have that confidence, that experience, and she brings that to the table. You want to be tight mentally and loose physically with your performance and that's exactly what Cooper gives us. She gives us that tight mental toughness and then that looseness, fire and passion out on the field."
Cooper said she couldn't have done that last season.
"That's why I'm so confident this year with my at-bats," the Herd senior said. "I don't care what pitch the pitcher can pitch or care where it's at, I'm going to put it in play, make contact, get something out of it. Last year, I was the same contact hitter, but I wasn't as confident and now I'm getting more out of it."
Cooper also said she hasn't had an issue not being on the defensive side of the game when she is the DH.
"Back in my sophomore year or even last year, I might have said that it was harder to focus," she said, "But this year, I'm so into my at-bats. I don't care if I'm playing or not playing in the field, I'm still going to be cheering on my team and I'm still going to zone in on whatever pitch.
"And then it's my senior year, just knowing that it's almost over and I want to go out with a bang and help get our team to whatever the best we can be. It's hard being a senior and knowing that you're almost done, but you want to give it your all.
"I felt last year I gave it my all, but it wasn't there for me, I wasn't batting like I wanted, and learning a new position (second base) maybe was part of it, but being a starter for the first time, I didn't succeed like I wanted to. This year, I'm zoning in a lot."
Cooper said she will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in health science. She was a nursing major, but "couldn't finish a nursing degree and play softball, so I plan on getting a job, then going back to school and finishing my nursing, hopefully get hired by a hospital somewhere. I figure I'll go back home and live with my parents, finish my nursing degree and pay off some school loans."
For Cooper, it's more that kind of drive than the one she had over "The Dot" fence against WKU that has made a difference.
"Just about all of it," Cooper answered when asked how much of her game is rooted in confidence and maturity. "Obviously, if you have more talent, you're going to play. You can't hide talent; you're still going to play.
"But if you have someone who has all of the talent in the world and no mental game, they just tear themselves down. What are you doing for the team? This game is a game of failure. You fail more often than succeed. You have to have a strong mental game to keep pushing to succeed."