Shayla Cooper declined to elaborate much on her post-graduate basketball plans.
Instead, she trained her index finger on her focuses for the moment.
Along a wall of the Ohio State women’s basketball practice gym hangs a series of plaques, detailing the successes of past teams. The senior forward hopes to add “2017” to at least a few.
“My main goal is to try to get this team to the Final Four,” Cooper said. “If I can, we’re going to be in that championship game. We’re not going to let these girls and my coaches down.”
In her final months at Ohio State, Cooper reiterates the lofty goals as a means of encouragement.
In a team meeting before Ohio State played Iowa last Sunday, she noted 12 consecutive wins would yield a national title. She was an active member of a summer OSU group text entitled, “National Champions 2017.”
Speaking up is important, Cooper said, as a reminder to push teammates through the soreness, fatigue and midterms that are staples of February and March basketball.
“I think she feels a sense of urgency that she wants to make sure that she can be a part of something where we can accomplish as much as possible,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “She’s been a little bit more vocal about making sure we’re doing the right things.”
As she prepares for her final regular-season home game — Ohio State’s game on Monday against No. 2 Maryland is her Senior Day — Cooper and those around her have reflected on how she has evolved the past few years.
She’s a better shooter, passer and ball-handler than when she arrived in Columbus. She is also a more emotionally complete player, better able to handle the swings of a game that gives and takes.
“That was one of my main focuses going into this year: ‘When times get hard, who are you as a person?’ ” Cooper said. “I think in the past I struggled with that, kind of being more hot-headed. I had to realize there are some people here that look up to me. I can’t lead them in the wrong ways; I had to be an example.”
Adversity is an everyday part of her life, Cooper said. She had to move several times throughout her childhood before her mother landed a job with Verizon, allowing the pair to settle more permanently in the Atlanta area just before Shayla entered high school.
Through the ups and downs, and even before she was born, basketball has been a part of her purpose.
Cooper’s mother, Stanolla, signed to play basketball at Florida International out of high school before she found out she was pregnant with Shayla. She returned home to Birmingham, Alabama, and played at Lawson State Community College.
“My coach knew that once I got into my third trimester I couldn’t play, and I was OK with that,” Stanolla Cooper said. “But when my six-week (postpartum) checkup came, that same day I was back in the gym.”
Stanolla, a single mom, said she was able to make it because of a solid support system. In turn, she has tried to build something similar for her daughter.
“As she got older, I taught her life,” Stanolla said. “I didn’t sugarcoat anything with Shayla because nothing was sugarcoated for me.”
Angie Hembree, Cooper’s coach at Norcross High School in Georgia, didn’t sugarcoat things, either. She said it took a more mature Cooper to help elevate a Norcross team that won a state title in 2013.
“I think slowly but surely she realized people were here for her,” Hembree said. “It doesn’t mean that everything was rosy, but little by little, step by step, a lot of things came to light for her.”
Hembree said each time she has dinner with Cooper — the two got together over the holiday break — she’s reminded of how engaging Shayla is.
“She’s smart and she’s honest. I love her. I didn’t like her sometimes, but I love her. I’m proud as I could be of her,” Hembree said. “To see that she’s graduating with a degree from Ohio State and the world is open to her, it makes me excited.”
Cooper started her college career at Georgetown, but that only offered more adversity for her to navigate. Hoyas coach Keith Brown resigned in October 2013 amid allegations of verbal abuse. Cooper decided to transfer after two games of her freshman season.
“I was looking to get somewhere where I could feel happy,” she said. “That was my main thing.”
It took some adjusting, but Cooper has found happiness at Ohio State. On the court, her combination of size and athleticism can be a matchup nightmare for defenses. Off the court, she has taken younger players under her wing, McGuff said, and regularly shares her knowledge.
But, as her mother said, life is “bigger than the basketball she bounces.”
Cooper will graduate with a communications degree in May. Her mother said Shayla will be the first person in her family to graduate with a four-year degree.
Cooper plans to go into the tech field after graduation. Until then, she’ll consistently serve her teammates reminders of what’s left to accomplish on the path to adding more “2017”s to the wall.
“Especially when I see things getting hard for us,” Cooper said. “It’s that part of the season where everyone’s hurt, everyone’s tired, everyone has tests, so I’m just like, ‘Hey, don’t forget!’ ”