Cooper Ready to Lead Irish in 2006

Irish senior Craig Cooper isn't quite sure what he has to do to gain the attention of Big East voters, but he's certainly captured the attention of Notre Dame baseball fans. Cooper's bat will likely play a large roll in how far the Irish baseball team will travel in 2006, but the happy-go-lucky Plainview, N.Y. native shrugs off any pressure and disrespect thrown his way.

What does Craig Cooper have to do to get his just rewards? Cooper is the reigning two-time Big East batting champion, finished third in the league in RBI in 2005, but he still can't seem to make the preseason Big East All-American list.

For his efforts in 2005 Cooper was nominated third team all-Big East despite being only the second person in Big East history to repeat as batting champion.

"I don't know," said Cooper when asked what he has to do to get recognized in the conference for his production at the plate. "They're doing a good job of giving me something to strive for though. It's almost to the point that I don't know what I need to do to get recognized by them. I'm just going to go out and keep playing. I don't really worry about the awards. As long as the team is winning, that's all I care about."

"It doesn't rile me up too much," Cooper continued. "It would be nice, but I'm not really worried about it. I'd rather be nominated at the end of the year as that would mean I did my job."

Maybe the lack of respect could be due to the fact that Cooper is switching positions this season, moving from the outfield to first base, to replace former Irish slugger Matt Edwards. Cooper says he knows he has some big shoes to fill in replacing Edwards both at the plate and in the field.

"I'm just going to take the same approach," he said. "I know being in the middle of the lineup that there will be some pressure on me to drive in some runs, but as long as the guys in front of me are getting on base, hopefully I'll be able to do what I've been doing and drive some runs in this season."

As for the field, Cooper said there has been a noticeable change moving in closer to the plate.

"I think you're involved in the game a lot more," Cooper said of moving into the infield. "In the outfield there could be games where you don't see a single ball. At first base you're pretty much involved in every play.

I take a lot more ground balls than I used to," he said with a laugh. "Just working with my footwork around the bag has been a big change for me."

Cooper admitted he wasn't thrilled on making the switch when the idea was first presented by Irish coach Paul Mainieri, but he says he's grown to really enjoy the position with time.

"I was kind of in between on it," the senior said. "I played some first base in high school, and one day I was taking some throws over there from Greg Lopez, helping him out, and coach saw me and said; ‘you look pretty good over there.' He worked me out there a little bit last fall and played me there a couple of games last spring. I think he's kind of eased me into it and that's been good. I really feel comfortable there now."

Cooper is also a leader on the Irish team—a role he takes very seriously. While the Irish didn't quite have the type of season they hoped for in 2005, Cooper said the entire team decided 2006 would be different after suffering an uncharacteristic 23-3 loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament to end their 2005 season.

"We felt we had changed our outlook as a team towards the end of the season," Cooper stated. "We had done very well up until that last game. Everyone was disappointed in the season, but to lose that last game by 20 runs, it was pretty embarrassing. We took it to heart.

"I think we realized last year that we were missing that X factor, that team chemistry. We weren't really clicking. We kind of found it at the end of the year. I think our reactions where: ‘why didn't we find it earlier?' We took it upon ourselves in the off-season to have an emphasis to be a team. I think it's really changed our perspective this year."

The two-time Cape Cod summer league player says he believes the Irish have what it takes this season to go far in post season play, but he also knows he'll need to do his job early to get the Irish off to a fast start.

"My biggest focus this year is I don't want to come out and have a slow start," he said. "I want to come and be in mid-season form and then progress from that form into hopefully being on fire at the end of the year.

"I think we'll have a very successful season. Hopefully we can make a run. I need to help our team get there by getting off to a fast start. I think we have all the pieces in place to make a run and we'll see how far we can make it."

"My time here has been awesome," he added. "This year I'm just focusing on playing hard and having fun. I've had so much fun here in my time and hopefully I can cap it off with a nice run to the College Worlds Series." Top Stories