Walker Cooper didn’t expect to face an all-star team every night, but that is essentially what happens in college basketball, even at the University of Maine at Augusta.
The players in the Yankee Small College Conference and elsewhere on UMA’s schedule excelled in high school, much the same way Cooper did playing for Cony.
“There’s a lot of athletic guys in this league I wasn’t expecting,” Cooper said. “Everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s been very difficult.”
Cooper, who topped 1,000 points in his career at Cony, has held his own. The 6-foot-6 forward averages 17.1 points and 6.6 rebounds a game for the Moose, but his role is changing, particularly with the loss of several players to academic ineligibility for the second semester.
As he often did in high school, Cooper plays on the perimeter, where he’s a tough matchup given his height and shooting ability. The loss for this semester of Andrew Pullen, another Cony graduate and 1,000-point scorer, has taken away some of the team’s low-post scoring punch.
“Andrew and (Walker) could combine on any given night for 50 points,” UMA coach Jim Ford said.
At one point in the first semester, the Moose won six of seven games, but they’re struggling to stay afloat right now in the race for a conference playoff berth.
“Walker is our primary go-to guy,” Ford said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Ford has challenged Cooper to get three offensive rebounds a half and to drive to the basket at least three times a game. He has the quickness to beat bigger defenders to the basket and the size to pull up and shoot over smaller defenders.
“He’s beginning to get that confidence to take that rip step around a defender and get to the rim,” Ford said. “It’s a learning experience for him now.”
At 180 pounds, Cooper knows he has to add weight and muscle to compete with the stronger players in the league. He’d like to gain at least 20 pounds before the next season’s opening game.
“It was an eye-opener seeing how much stronger everyone was in the league,” he said. “I’m going to have to hit the weight room.”
Ford originally recruited one of Cooper’s Cony teammates, Anthony Roberts, but heard over the summer Cooper might be thinking about coming to UMA.
“It was between there and Thomas,” Cooper said. “It worked out financially and I could keep my (part-time) job.”
Cooper doesn’t regret his choice. He enjoys his teammates as well as the school.
“Actually, I love the school,” he said. “I love the teachers, I love the atmosphere. It’s a great learning environment.”
Cooper is enrolled in the criminal justice program and would like to become a state trooper or perhaps go further in law enforcement. An added bonus for him this semester is being reunited with his older brother Wade on the basketball team.
“It’s great playing with my brother again,” he said. “I played with him back when I was in fifth grade.”
Ford said Cooper needs more work on the defensive end of the floor and to take better shots, but he’s pleased with what he brings to the team.
“I’m becoming a smarter player,” Cooper said. “Right now it looks like I will return there for at least next year.”
Gary Hawkins — 621-5638