Being the only senior on a highly-ranked college basketball team may be too tough a challenge for some. Not for OSU senior forward Shayla Cooper.
“No pressure,” Cooper said. “It’s a great time for me to be able to lead. I’ve been able to lead in other ways, but this year I’ve been able to be more vocal.”
Cooper, a 6’2” forward out of Norcross, Georgia, is embracing her role as the team’s lone senior. She has the backing of her coaches, who are confident in her leadership abilities.
“She is leading by example,” OSU coach Kevin McGuff said. “She’s been really consistent in her effort, intensity and focus on a daily basis.”
Her leadership has already rubbed off on Jensen Caretti, Tori McCoy and Kiara Lewis, OSU’s three true freshmen. They’re a soft-spoken trio, but they all perked up when asked about Cooper.
McCoy said Cooper’s leadership is easy to follow. During her official visit to OSU, McCoy said said Cooper made the experience enjoyable and put her mind at ease.
“She always makes sure that we are OK, makes sure we have rides,” Lewis said. “She tries to take us places with her just to hang out and bond.”
Although the freshmen haven’t registered an official game yet, McGuff said they are already benefitting from Cooper’s guidance.
“If they are out of place or not quite understanding what they are supposed to do, she can articulate to them what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to be doing it in a way that they get,” McGuff said.
Before becoming a Buckeye, Cooper graduated from Norcross High School and began attending Georgetown University in 2013. Just two games into her freshman season, the forward decided to transfer. She had to sit out the rest of her freshman year and one semester into her sophomore season before finally suiting up for OSU on Dec. 22, 2014.
Last season, as a junior, Cooper appeared in all 32 games, making 11 starts. She improved on her 10.7 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game in 2014-15, to 13.3 points and 8.1 boards per game in 2015-16. She also shot 46 percent from beyond the arc last season.
Now entering her third season with the Buckeyes, Cooper said that she has spent this offseason working on different parts of her game to become a better all-around player. Cooper would pull junior guard Kelsey Mitchell into the gym for a defender. Cooper said when it comes to defense, Mitchell is extremely active that it helps her with her ball handling and beating a defender off the dribble.
“If I can be able to change directions the way that she does it at my size, I think that’ll be a great tool for us to use,” Cooper said.
The improvements that Cooper is trying to make should be easier with OSU’s newfound depth. A season ago, Cooper often had to move into the middle of the paint and act as a big for the Buckeyes. She said that she sees herself more as a guard and that the additions of redshirt junior Stephanie Mavunga and freshman forward Tori McCoy will allow her to slide into a more natural role.
“For me to be able to kind of take my game out to the three-point land a little bit more, that’ll help me here a lot and at the next level,” Cooper said.
With a more comfortable role now, McGuff believes that a special season could be in store for the senior.
“She’s a unique player because she’s a power forward who plays on the perimeter,” McGuff said. “She’s hard to guard out there because she can shoot it, she can drive it and she’s got the physicality to score around the basket.”
Individual accomplishes aside, Cooper said that she believes talent and depth can propel the Lady Buckeyes to new heights in 2016-17.
“I feel like the team we have this year is very capable of making it to the final four,” Cooper said. “If not the finals.”