Rams’ Cooper eager to keep building on successful sophomore year

Cassie Cooper

STRASBURG – In the room overlooking the swimming pool at the Signal Knob Recreation Center following practice Wednesday afternoon, Strasburg High School swim coach Ina Rae Crisman recalled the series of circumstances last season that led to Rams swimmer Cassie Cooper making a midseason shift to the 100 butterfly, an event Cooper had never competed in at the high school level. When Crisman got to the part where she informed Cooper that she would be making the switch, Cooper interjected.

“I was terrified,” Cooper said.

Prior to that point, Cooper’s only experience with the butterfly stroke was in the opening 50 yards of the 200 individual medley, an event that combines the fly with the backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Never had Cooper done four full laps in the butterfly in a high school meet.

But Strasburg’s girls swim team lacked a 100 fly competitor, and Cooper needed to find a new event because of the physical challenges of trying to compete in both the 200 IM and the 50 free, two events generally conducted back-to-back during meets. So Crisman offered Cooper the chance to compete in the 100 fly.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure. I mean, I’m not gonna be good but I’ll do it,'” Cooper recalled. “But it turns out I was great at it and I went somewhere with it.”

That “somewhere” was all the way to the Group 2A state meet in Christiansburg, where Cooper finished her sophomore year with an 11th-place finish in the 100 fly with a time of 1:14.18.

A lot of that success came from Cooper’s willingness to put in the extra work, a trait Cooper says she inherited from her father, Frank. Cooper said she works out in the weight room after each of Strasburg’s swim practices, and she is always asking Crisman for tips and advice on how to become faster in the water.

“I think the kids that come in, especially in swimming because of our limited time, they feel like what I’m doing in the water is enough,” Crisman said. “And then they realize that if they wanna go further they’re gonna have to push themselves. So I think she does and she gets into the weight room every day after practice … and she does that extra step. And that’s what any good athlete needs to go to that next level. Just putting in the time during a practice isn’t gonna allow you to achieve what you want to achieve.”

The transition to Cooper’s new event went smoothly, so much so that she considers the 100 fly “by far” her best – and her favorite – race. But Cooper said it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“It was hard at first. Like the first race I did I was dead. I was like I don’t wanna do this ever again,” said Cooper, now a junior. “Then I started working on it during practice and I was like, ‘I like this, all I have to do is another 50’ and I just think, ‘I’m almost done. I can push myself harder.'”

Cooper quickly found success in the event, winning the 100 fly at the Shenandoah County meet. Later in the year, Cooper just snuck into the state competition with an eighth-place finish at the Region 2A East meet, claiming the final state-qualifying spot.

“She listened to what everyone had to say,” Crisman said. “She took the advice of what I tried to teach her as far as the technique, and she began to improve and flourish with it. Butterfly is one of those strokes where you either love it or you hate it. There’s really no in between, and thank goodness she loves it.”

Once at the state meet Cooper’s feeling of being “overwhelmed” eventually subsided, allowing her to soak up the valuable learning experience as she received tips from other competitors and got to witness first-hand some of the more talented swimmers from other areas of the state.

“When you get there you’re like, ‘Oh I think I’m so good,’ and then you watch the fastest swimmer get first and you’re like, ‘I wanna be her. I wanna do that,'” said Cooper, who also competed in the 200 medley relay and the 200 free relay at the Group 2A meet last year.

Cooper, who would like to add the 100 backstroke to her growing list of events this season, is hoping to build on her sophomore performance this winter with the Rams, and Crisman said she’s already noticed the benefit of Cooper’s state experience last winter.

“From her freshman year to her sophomore year she learned, she progressed, and then when she made it to states, it’s a humbling experience when you walk in and … you think you’re good and then you see all these others around you and it’s very humbling,” Crisman said. “But I can tell from last year to this year, in just the couple weeks that we’ve been in the water, the maturity has finally come.”

Cooper said she wants to be looked at as a leader for the Rams this season. She wants her teammates to ask her questions, and she wants to stay after practice to help others strive for their goals.

“I expect our team to do a lot better,” Cooper said. “… I want everybody to try to make it (to) states, or regions or somewhere, to push themselves to that level.”

Strasburg’s girls team placed sixth in the Region 2A East meet and 15th in the state meet last season while sending three individuals and three relay teams to Christiansburg.

Sophomore Haleigh Mills (500 free) joins Cooper as a returning individual state qualifier from last season, while Crisman added that seniors Rachel Funkhouser and Abigail Murphy complete the core of experienced leadership for Strasburg’s girls team this season.

The Rams’ boys team returns all four of its individual state qualifiers from last season in seniors Riley Daugherty, Evan Davis, Christian Neff and junior Nathaniel Hershey. That quartet also made up the 200 free relay team that placed fifth in the state.

Strasburg begins the 2015-16 swim season on Dec. 12 in a Bull Run District meet at Manassas Park.

“We have 27 (swimmers) and I would say over half have a very good chance of going to that next level and be able to qualify because it’s a good group of kids,” Crisman said.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com