The Times West Virginian

February 16, 2014

COLUMN: Cooper overcomes injury, accepts new role

By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — It’s a simple question, really.

Anyone who has played so much as church-league basketball has heard it and answered without much difficulty. Yet at the beginning of the season when I asked Fairmont State’s Brendan Cooper what position he plays, even he wasn’t sure how to answer.

The official roster lists Cooper ambiguously as guard/forward. At 6-foot-7 he has the size and toughness to battle inside with the big men. The next possession he’ll be taking the ball up the court, crossing up defenders with handles that make some point guards jealous.

After thinking for a while, Cooper settled on an answer: “Playmaker.”

That conversation was several months ago when, by all estimations, Cooper was going to be the face of the Falcons. Coach Jerrod Calhoun said himself at the season’s outset that the offense would “go through Cooper.”

But then came a hand injury.

It forced Cooper to miss considerable playing time in his final season at Fairmont State. Forget “playmaker,” he was essentially relegated to cheerleader.

A young starting lineup featuring four freshmen and one sophomore found its rhythm in Cooper’s absence. Now that Cooper is finally healthy, Calhoun has opted to stick with the same starters, which has forced his senior leader to accept yet another role: bench player.

Saturday Cooper not only accepted his place on the team; he thrived in it. The only healthy senior for Fairmont State scored 25 points and pulled down eight rebounds in a 93-81 upset win over No. 3 West Liberty.

“When he came back he had to understand his role for the team,” said redshirt freshman Thomas Wimbush, who has taken over as the main scoring threat in Cooper’s absence, putting up 24 points and grabbing 13 boards against the Hilltoppers. “He has to come off the bench and produce good minutes for us. He played really well for us tonight. I was really proud of him as a senior to go out like that.”

Cooper didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t announced with the rest of the starters at the beginning of the game. Nor did he seem bothered that all but one of those starters played more minutes than his 30.

“As long as we're getting wins like that, I don't care if I don't even play,” he said.

The comment is especially true against West Liberty.  Neither Calhoun nor Cooper had beaten the Hilltoppers before Saturday. Both would have probably agreed to sit on the bench — or even the bleachers in peanut heaven— if that’s what it took to get over the hump.

In the days leading up to the game, last year’s leading scorer Isaac Thornton texted and called Calhoun constantly. After losing all nine of his games against the Hilltoppers, Thornton didn’t want to see another senior go winless against them.

“He was texting me and calling me in the middle of the night: ‘Coach we’ve got to get them. I want Coop to get that win,’” Calhoun remembers.

Afterward I asked Cooper where the win ranks out of all of the games he’s played at Fairmont State. He responded, “Off the top of my head it’s got to be number one.”

In addition to his offensive versatility, Cooper added key minutes defensively. He blocked three shots (and got a piece of at least two more that were called goaltending, much to the dismay of the 1,426 fans packed inside of Joe Retton Arena). On one of the early blocks, Cooper sliced his finger on the rim.

“He had blood everywhere. It was an all-out war out there,” Calhoun said. “I thought both teams competed hard, and at one time he came to the sideline and he had blood gushing everywhere.”

The laceration was bandaged. But when more physical play opened the cut back up and blood dripped on his uniform, an NCAA rule forced him to change the bandage, his shorts and his jersey. He went from his typical No. 11 to No. 21.

But in a season of unexpected twists and turns, clothing was probably the smallest change that Cooper has had to deal with.

“When adversity strikes you've got to get together as a team and somebody has got to be the leader,” he said. “I think we're doing a good job of coming together and dealing with adversity.”

After beating the No. 3-ranked team in the country, I’d have to agree.

Email Mike DeFabo at mdefabo@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.