ND Male Athlete of the Year: Craig Cooper
Kyle Cassily | Friday, May 19, 2006
All year, opposing pitchers have feared coming back to the top of the Irish order.
Senior first baseman and leadoff hitter Craig Cooper has torn the cover off the ball in his four seasons wearing a Notre Dame uniform and is headed toward his third consecutive Big East batting crown with a .432 average through the team’s 3-1 loss to Michigan Tuesday. He leads the league in runs with 67, is second in on-base percentage at .529, third in hits and slugging percentage with 79 and .678, respectively, and his nine home runs place him at eighth in the conference.
“[Cooper has] put in the time and the work and shortened up his swing,” Irish coach Paul Mainieri said. “He hits the ball harder now than he did when his swing was long. There’s not any kind of pitcher that he faces that he can’t hit.”
The slugger was voted second-team all-Big East his sophomore season and was awarded a spot on the third team last year. His .432 batting average this season seems certain to secure an honor or two.
“I’ve said it many times that if Coop isn’t Big East player of the year, there should be an investigation,” Mainieri said.
Cooper entered 2006 in third place on the all-time Big East career batting average list at .420 (68-for-162). He credits his success to the confidence and discipline Mainieri has instilled in him while at Notre Dame.
“My confidence has grown just being here four years – coming to a program I knew was one of the top in the country [and] being able to compete with these guys,” he said. “As you get older and play more games you get more patient and that has really helped me.”
His time with Notre Dame has only been part of the formative process that has allowed him to strike fear in the eyes of pitchers across the Big East. In the summers of 2004 and 2005, Cooper played for the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod League – the premiere summer baseball league in the country.
Cooper was third on the Whitecaps with 17 RBIs and three home runs in 2004. He collected 12 runs and three doubles in 2005.
“Playing in the Cape has been the biggest thing that’s helped me competition-wise,” Cooper said. “Everyday we were going out hitting against someone in the country’s No. 1 pitcher. By the end of the summer your confidence grows that you can hit against these guys.”
The 2006 spring season with Notre Dame has been one of change for Cooper, but change that has worked for the better.
He transferred from the outfield to take over first base for Matt Edwards – the lone departing starting position player from last year. And earlier this year he transitioned from the three-hole into the leadoff spot.
The first change has solidified an already strong infield complete with second baseman Ross Brezovsky, shortstop Greg Lopez and third baseman Brett Lilley. Mainieri considers Cooper “one of the best defensive first baseman I’ve ever coached.”
And the second change eventually led to widespread attention for the political science and computer applications major – 21-game hit streaks tend to do that.
“I was afraid to move him out of [leadoff] because he found his groove,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know why he’s so comfortable there. Maybe being the top of the order, pitchers don’t want to walk a batter and they throw strikes.”
The hitting streak came tucked into Notre Dame’s record-setting 23-game winning streak and the hits stopped only a game before the wins did.
He has secured a hit in all but eight of his 46 games this season and has 35 RBIs, 32 walks and nine stolen bases so far.
But with both streaks now behind Cooper and the team, the senior can focus more on guiding Notre Dame deep into the Big East and NCAA Tournaments and toward his future beginning with the MLB draft in June.
“With his athleticism, strength, quality of swing, I feel he has a chance to progress to pro ball,” Mainieri said. “He has a lot of the ingredients that pro teams look for. It’s a tough grind to be successful in pro ball, but I wouldn’t bet against Coop.”