Cooper Faces Tough Slate
By SHAWN RINE
WEST LIBERTY — Kyle Cooper has been in the West Liberty women’s basketball program for four-plus seasons now and is keenly aware of the expectations. In his first year as the head coach of the Hilltoppers, he recognizes it’s now his job to make sure they are met.
“Going .500 around here is not acceptable … not to me, not to the school, not to the administration,” Cooper said. “We have some kids who will look at the schedule and say ‘we should win that game’ and that kind of stuff, but I have told them not to do those kinds of things.
“We have to take it step-by-step and not look at the big picture.”
That being said, Cooper believes — hopefully — that the Toppers can be firing all cylinders when February rolls around. It wasn’t easy in the early going against a brutal schedule that led to a 1-3 start.
“I have got nobody to blame for the schedule but me,” Cooper said with a laugh. “Coach (Lynn) Ullom let me take over those duties a couple of years ago.
“But the good thing is, if you were to rank the schedule during the preseason I would say that we have three of the top 5 or 6 games already behind us.”
The West Liberty system is predicated on having a dynamic point guard, something that wasn’t a luxury a season ago. That’s no longer the case with the addition of true freshman Audrey Tingle.
“She’s a special kid and a special talent,” Cooper said. “Her motor never stops and at 5-foot-6, she has already flirted with a couple triple-doubles this season.
“There’s a lot of growth to go, but if there is more of what I have seen of her in the first four games, we’re going to be OK.”
Tingle’s addition allows players such as McKenna Shives and Johnie Olkosky to play their more natural games. A shooter who led the nation in 3-point field goals made last season, Shives had to do the bulk of the ballhandling duties.
“But she was also forced to be a high-volume shooter,” Cooper said of Shives. “She is taking less shots now, but is shooting a better percentage.
“She is one of the biggest buy-ins on the team.
“Johnie is one of our biggest leaders and she is back to her role and is letting people see what she is capable of doing.”
Brandi Beader, a 5-8 junior, is probably the team’s most athletic player.
“She’s another one of our leaders and our longest-tenured players,” Cooper said. “She is highly efficient.”
Marissa Brown, a 6-3 junior post in her second season after transferring from Youngstown State, is the fifth starter. Cooper wants to see consistency from a player who has shown flashes of being dominant.
“She can be a force in this league and the Atlantic Region when she is getting engaged and being physical,” the coach said. “She has the ability that once she catches it, to drop-step and shoot over anyone with either hand.
“Last year was a weird year because we weren’t able to push the ball as much as we like, so this is really her first year in the West Liberty system. She is running the floor very well.”
Grace Fodor is a 5-7 sophomore guard off the bench. She guards the other team’s best player and is highly athletic.
Cooper is looking for — and getting — quality minutes from fellow guards Olivia Belknap and Jackie Kitts.
“There’s no doubt that having a true point guard changes everything,” Cooper said. “It also makes you able to go in the half-court as well.”
There isn’t much depth on the interior, which is why Cooper and assistant Cassie Seth targeted that area in recruiting for next year. Allie Farina, a 6-1 junior, can spell Brown at times depending on the flow of the game.
Cooper wanted to redshirt true freshman Sammie Hall, but doesn’t know if he will be able. She has the ability to guard just about anyone on the floor and injuries have already been an issue. OVAC products Monica Bragg (Madonna) and Jewel Purpura (Bishop Donahue) are out indefinitely, as is Micah Finley.
“We need to springboard ourselves with a couple victories,” Cooper said. “Then we continue to take it in short segments.”