By Tommy Keeler Jr. - email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- Stephanie Cooper and Sarah DiNardo have always been connected.
Whether it was spending countless hours at the Woodstock park playing pickup games or helping Central's girls basketball team win the program's only state championship in the fall of 1996, the one thing that has always bonded them has been their love of basketball.
"We've always been very passionate about basketball and working hard -- something that we've always done," DiNardo said. "A lot of our basketball ability came naturally from all that hard work. And that started when we were 5 years old playing rec league. Sharing that -- we've always had a friendship."
Cooper said the pair played on different teams in the parks and rec leagues, and because of a one-year age difference weren't always in the same league together.
"I just remember that's where we got our start, probably where we met each other," Cooper said. "It's where we learned how to play basketball. It's kind of our roots, I guess."
Once they got to high school that connection became stronger, not only for them but the whole team. The pair led the Falcons to 18 straight wins and the Group A state title.
Cooper and DiNardo made a huge impact on the program. They each scored 1,000 points. They are the top two scorers all-time in the school's history. They've each had their jerseys retired.
Now, 15 years after winning a state championship, the two are closer than ever and coaching Central's girls basketball team together. Cooper is the head coach while DiNardo serves as her assistant.
On Wednesday, the two will lead the Falcons into the Region B semifinals, where they will host William Monroe. The Falcons are in search of their first regional win since 1997, Cooper's senior year.
On Nov. 23, 1996, a group of players achieved a goal that they had worked toward for many years.
DiNardo grabbed a big rebound off of a Meghann Peer missed free throw and put it in the basket to help Central seal a 52-47 win over Haysi in the state final in Bristol.
Moments later, DiNardo, Cooper (then Stephanie Lane) and their teammates celebrated and cried as they held up the state trophy.
It was a special accomplishment, but Cooper and DiNardo are quick to point out that they wouldn't have succeeded if they hadn't played together as a team.
"Everybody knew their role," Cooper said. "Everybody knew what they had to do to be successful, whatever that was. And everybody did what they were supposed to do. We were really just the epitome of a team."
The team stayed close through the years. DiNardo is still best friends with Peer and Lindsey Rutz. Cooper said former teammate Jessica Wellard was at one of the Falcons' recent games, and many of the fans who supported the team back then are still supporting it today.
The Falcons also had a solid coaching staff in 1996, led by head coach Roger Wilkins and current boys head coach Mickey Clinedinst. Cooper and DiNardo were the two leading scorers on the team. They were both great shooters, who hit a lot of big shots during their careers.
They finished their careers only seven points apart, and are first and second all-time in scoring in the school's history. DiNardo has the record at 1,190, while Cooper finished with 1,183.
One of the things that made the team special was that the players didn't worry about who got the glory.
"I think the understanding was we know what we want to accomplish, but when she succeeds I succeed," Cooper said. "So, it's not 'Oh, she scored 25 and I only scored 10, so she did better than me.' It's, 'She scored 25 and I scored 10, and we did that together. And we hammered everybody that we played.'"
Cooper and DiNardo went their separate ways after high school. Cooper graduated in 1998, while DiNardo graduated in 1997.
Cooper went to play at Liberty University, but after suffering an injury she decided to come back home.
She was an assistant coach at Stonewall Jackson under Jeff Burner for a year. And she coached Stonewall's JV team.
She then decided to give basketball another try. Cooper went to Eastern Mennonite University, and helped lead the Royals to a Division III Sweet 16 appearance.
Cooper was a standout player there for four years. After graduating from EMU, she came back home again and began teaching at W.W. Robinson Elementary.
In 2007, Wilkins decided to step down as girls basketball coach to become the boys basketball coach. With the timing just right, Cooper applied and took over the program her mentor had coached for so many years.
After high school, DiNardo went to Catawba, from which she graduated. She came back home for a short stint, but then moved back to Charlotte, N.C., with Rutz. She was there for more than seven years before deciding to return home three years ago.
During their time apart, DiNardo said she and Cooper lost touch with each other, but once she came back they reconnected.
Last season Cooper asked DiNardo if she wanted to help out, and so DiNardo volunteered as an assistant coach. Wilkins at the time was a paid assistant under Cooper, bringing all three of them together again.
"Being able to help Stephanie was very special, because she was a part of that program, which was a big part of my life," Wilkins said. "Those kids were very special to me personally because they did a lot of things for me. They put a lot of time into it and a lot of hard work. They supported me when they played and after they played.
"So it's a relationship that I'll always cherish."
In the offseason, Wilkins decided to move back to the boys basketball program and be reunited with Clinedinst. The timing was once again just right, and DiNardo took over as a paid assistant.
She was also able to get a job at Strasburg High School working in the guidance department, making it easier for her to be at all the practices and games.
DiNardo admitted the transition to coaching hasn't been easy.
"You think you have passion when you play. I've found that I have a lot more passion when I coach," DiNardo said. "I want them to feel the same way that I do, and obviously that's not always the case. They're teenagers, they're kids and they're not always going to feel the same way that I do. And that's OK as long as they work hard."
One thing that has made things much easier for them as coaches has been the fact that they are such good friends, and they know each other very well.
"Sarah keeps me sane," Cooper said. "She reads my mind a lot. One of us will say something that the other one is thinking."
Their ability to once again work together has helped the Falcons this season, and even the players can see the friendship between the two.
"They're coming along as much as we are," Central sophomore Katelyn Poston said. "Coach Cooper has been here for five or six years, and coach DiNardo just came in this year. I think definitely coach DiNardo is a great asset. Both of them together, they are just making our team so much better as coaches. They're just doing everything they can to make us better.
"This is our best year in a really long time, so something's going right for us."
Another key ingredient to their success as coaches has been the fact that they both came up in the same system.
"We came from the Jerry Walters/Roger Wilkins school of basketball," Cooper said. "I don't have to teach her all that. We know what's expected. We know what it takes to be good, and to be great and to be the best. I don't have to worry about any of that, which makes it a lot easier to work on other things."
They both learned under Wilkins, and still go to him and Walters, the former longtime boys basketball coach, for advice whenever needed.
For Wilkins, seeing his two former players coaching his program is very special.
"It really made me proud to know that they stayed with the game and that they took over a program that I used to coach," Wilkins said. "I'm very proud of them."
DiNardo is in tears.
As she walks through the hallway at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School on Jan. 24, she's overcome with emotion.
She didn't hit a big basket to help win the state championship like she did 15 years ago, but the feeling is still the same after Central beat George Mason, 51-50. It was the Mustangs' first regular season district loss in four years.
"You'd think we won the state championship," DiNardo said of her emotion after the win over the Mustangs. "I'm walking down the hallway, I've got tears running down my face because I was just so proud of them."
The win was special for the coaches and the team because of everything the Falcons have gone through this year. Central started off 4-9. It had two players leave the team, and lost Poston and Rebecca Sigler for three games each due to injuries.
The team has only eight players, but has won 10 of its last 12 games. Last week the Falcons advanced to the Bull Run District tournament final, where they lost a close game to George Mason.
"We've played the better part of our season with seven kids," Cooper said. "I think it's a huge credit to the girls for sticking with it and not giving up, but digging their heels in and saying, 'We're not gonna back down. Were going to fight through it.' We've done a great job of facing the adversity and conquering it."
It's helped the players a lot knowing the coaches have won a state title together before. The players look up to them and want to accomplish the same thing their coaches have.
"I want to have the feeling that they did winning the state championship," Central sophomore Brenna Cook said. "I want to have that kind of accomplishment for me and for our team. I know how great and how happy it is for them to say, 'We won a state title when we were in high school.' So we want to do that, too."
High above Central's trophy case there are pictures of some of the school's top athletes of all time. Cooper and DiNardo's pictures are among those hanging there, along with a list of their accomplishments.
They achieved a lot during their high school years together, and now years later they're back together trying to accomplish even more.
They understand, like the coaches before them, that it's about more than just the wins and losses.
"We always have the philosophy that we're not just teaching them basketball," Cooper said. "We're trying to teach them how to be good people, and how to have character and how to carry yourself. I think that's our responsibility because of the position that we're in.
"I'm not here for just the basketball part, but we're here for any area that you might need help with."
The future is bright for the young team. Cooper and DiNardo would love to help lead the program back to another state title, but they know what's really important is the friendship of the players and playing together.
Whether they can lead them to a state title or not, the important thing is Cooper and DiNardo are once again doing it together as friends.
"I've learned so much from her just on the coaching aspect of it," DiNardo said. "We can say whatever we want to each other, which is nice because we vent, we yell, we scream.
"And it's nice to have your friend there."