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Friday, March 3, 2017

When Coaches Speak: Mark Cooke

(When Coaches Speak is a series of articles where active coaches will give their thoughts on their own teams, as well as current happenings in the game and offer thoughts on their peers, always in their own words.)

Winthrop head coach Mark Cooke / Photo courtesy Winthrop Athletics
After a 15-43 record in 2016, it's okay if you were sleeping on the Winthrop Eagles. As the season has begun, though, the Eagles have gotten off to an impressive start and seem poised and ready for Big South play.

Now 9-7 after a 3-1 showing last weekend, the Eagles have already enjoyed victories over East Carolina, Lipscomb, and the College of Charleston. "Every year, we open against big-time opponents," said Winthrop head coach Mark Cooke. "It gives us a good measuring stick for the rest of the year."

The Eagles kicked off their season with the afore-mentioned win over East Carolina before putting together a five\-game winning streak in the season's second week, besting Eastern Kentucky, Illinois-Chicago, Monmouth, Lipscomb, and College of Charleston by a combined score of 19-8.

With just two seniors and four juniors on the roster, the Eagles boast a decidedly-young squad. Cooke says one of his program's biggest highlights is the athleticism of his players: "We have a seventeen-player roster, and I can play anyone, anytime, anywhere and they can do it. It is a tremendously athletic roster, top to bottom."

As the Eagles' season winds on, they are also in the midst of a project that is near and dear to each of their hearts. Program alum Janiva Willis was killed last year in an automobile accident, while in the middle of a cross-country charity bike ride. A non-profit founder and Winthrop Hall of Fame member, Willis' loss hit many members of the program hard, Cooke included. "She was a tremendous person to me, like a daughter," Cooke said, later adding, "It was like losing a daughter."

Following Willis' death, the idea came about to make her mark on the program a permanent one that would not go away with Cooke's eventual retirement or the graduation of the players who knew her. It was Cooke's idea to name the program's new hitting facility after one of their top alumni, who had left an indelible mark on her alma mater.

More than $37,000 must be donated and collected by the softball program to make up a percentage of the overall cost of the building, more than one-third of which has already been donated. "[School president Daniel Mahony] gave one of our first large donations," Cooke says. "We have received such support on this project from all over."

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