Friday, April 22, 2011

SPORTS>>Cooper departing NP to coach Mills

Leader sportswriter

Raymond Cooper’s tour of the 5A-Southeast Conference is almost halfway completed.

After six seasons as North Pulaski’s boys basketball coach, Cooper is leaving to take over the program at conference member Mills. The switch comes with the resignation of Mills coach Leo Olberts, who is remaining on the Mills staff as a teacher.

Cooper, a graduate of 5A-Southeast member Sylvan Hills, began making his exit in mid-March, just after the conclusion of the state basketball tournaments, and was confirmed by Pulaski County Special School District officials April 15.

Cooper will work closer to his home in the Little Rock area and also said the possible merger of North Pulaski and Jacksonville schools was a factor in his decision.

“For one, it’s a little closer to home,” Cooper said. “And I know that at some point, the district here will probably combine. There was that uncertainty, and Mills is a good school that has some good tradition. They have a deep basketball tradition.”

Cooper went 101-69 in his six seasons at North Pulaski, leading the Falcons to the postseason four times with a state finals appearance in 2009.

The Falcons lost an ugly title game to Greene County Tech, 37-34, as they shot less than 20 percent. With seniors such as Kyron Ware, Daquan Bryant and Cooper’s son Aaron, North Pulaski was expected to return to the championship game in 2010, but Wynne stunned the Falcons in the semifinals with a buzzer-beating three pointer to win 55-54.

Cooper did not let rebuilding stop him from making another state-tournament run last season. The Falcons went 18-12 and reached the quarterfinal round before falling to host Alma 66-64.

In a twist, the Airedales went on to win the 5A state championship with a decisive victory over North Pulaski’s 5A-Southeast Conference rival Sylvan Hills, which defeated the Falcons in two close games during the regular season.

That included the second meeting at Sylvan Hills, which ended dramatically and with some controversy in overtime.

Cooper’s only losing season at North Pulaski was his first. The Falcons went 2-21, with one of the two victories coming as the result of an early-season tournament forfeit.

Their only on-court victory that year came against Pulaski Oak Grove on senior night.

Cooper and the Falcons also missed the postseason in 2007-08, his third season, despite going 16-11.

“It was one of the most rewarding things I have gone through in my career in sports,” Cooper said of his tenure at North Pulaski.

“We started out with some hard times, and made them better. It’s a great place to be, and I have a lot of good memories, and coached a lot of good kids.”

Cooper helped send a number of players to the college basketball ranks, most notably his sons. Quinn Cooper, who played in his father’s first two seasons at North Pulaski, will graduate from Lyon College next month after playing for the Scots under longtime coach Kevin Jenkins.

Aaron Cooper just finished his freshman season at Missouri State under coach Paul Lusk.

The Falcons showed promise last season with standout sophomore point guard Dayshawn Watkins, junior center Jeremiah Hollis and two-sport standout Shyhiem Barron.

“That’s the main thing, is that I’m leaving behind some great kids,” Cooper said. “You develop relationships with players, and you get in a comfort level when you’re somewhere long enough. There were a lot of mixed emotions in this.

“I’m excited, but there’s also the fact that you get attached to the place you’ve been at.”

Cooper was a standout himself as a player at Sylvan Hills in the mid 1980’s, which added some spice to the conference rivalry between North Pulaski and his alma mater. Now that he is moving to Mills, Cooper will have been affiliated with three of the eight teams currently in the 5A-Southeast.

“I thought about that,” Cooper said. “Somebody asked me where I went to school, and I told them Sylvan Hills, so I said, ‘Well, I’m making my way all over the conference.’ That’s the thing, I know this conference pretty well, so there’s not a lot of research I will have to do on other teams.

“And the kids at Mills, they already know the kind of style of basketball I like to play. They already know what they’ll be getting into.”