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Even In Death, Cooper's Influence Can Be Felt At Indiana

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(Graphic By Don Olea)

Emileigh Cooper never wore an Indiana uniform or even attended the school, but her influence is felt every day within the softball program.

Cooper played for Indiana head coach Shonda Stanton at Marshall from 2012-15.

Stanton didn’t initially have room for Cooper on the roster, but her persistence convinced Stanton to make space.

Cooper rose from a walk-on freshman to a scholarship starter and team captain by her senior year.

On her way to a fundraiser banquet for the Marshall program only a year later, Cooper died in a car accident. She was 22.

Stanton likely wouldn’t be coaching at Indiana if not for Cooper. Her influence motivated Stanton to embrace challenges.

After spending 18 seasons at Marshall and becoming the winningest coach in program history with 560 victories, Stanton decided to make a move last year and leave for Indiana.

"Emileigh always wanted more and that kid always pushed me as a coach. Her death was kind of the 'ah ha' moment for me,” Stanton said. “I was getting comfortable and could have stayed there and been in the Hall of Fame, but that kid really inspired me to want more."

Stanton is having the same influence on her players at Indiana. Challenging them to dig deeper to reach their full potential, she has changed the culture of the program.

Bolstered by the pitching of senior ace Tara Trainer, Indiana (17-2) started the season a program-best 14-0 before suffering its first losses last weekend.

The Hoosiers have victories over then-No.6 Georgia and then-No. 10 LSU, which is believed to be the first time in program history Indiana has defeated two top-10 teams in one season.

Indiana, which has yet to play at home this season, entered the Top 25 in the media rankings this season for the first time since 2011, and the coaches’ poll for the first time since 1996.

"It's about changing the mindset of our athletes in a sense that this is Indiana and we should be a relevant program in the Big Ten and on the national stage,” Stanton said. “I don't necessarily know if I believed it would happen in year two, but that is how we operated and how we trained.”

Stanton knew she would have to gain her team’s trust once she arrived at Indiana to replace Michelle Gardner.

The day after her hiring was announced, Stanton called every player personally and then called every player’s parents. She assured them they had a place in her program.

"Right from the start, she created those relationships. That really meant a lot,” Indiana junior outfielder Gabbi Jenkins said. “It would have been easy for them to want their own players and wait a couple of years to be good. But they decided to be good now and shape this program right now. They bought into us and we bought into them."

The transition was not always painless, but the players knew the coaches had their best interest at heart. From the field to the weight room, they were pushed to a level many didn’t know they had in them.

"Honestly at the beginning, it was crazy different in so many ways. There were days where we were like, 'She wants more?'” Jenkins said. “That is still the case, but now we have the same expectations of ourselves and our mindset is now like coach's mindset."

The three “core pillars” of Indiana’s program are: “strong and able,” “thankful and present” and “attitude of gratitude.”

Stanton quickly realized she had a key piece to build around in Trainer. The first-team All-Big Ten selection set new career highs last season, and is off to an even better start this season.

Trainer is 12-1 with a Big Ten-leading 0.66 ERA and 96 strikeouts. Last weekend, she moved into second place in Indiana history with 668 career strikeouts.

"First and foremost, you have to have the pitching. That's why it's called fastpitch softball,” said Stanton, a former four-year starter at UNC Greensboro. “Looking at the stat sheet before we took the job, we knew Tara could be a difference-maker. I knew our pitching coach, Chanda Bell, could develop not only Tara but a complete staff. Chanda deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Indiana features a nearly all-female coaching staff, which is in intentional on Stanton’s part. She has two female associate head coaches, four female managers and one male volunteer assistant.

"I really believe in building young women. We are all in this profession because we love to compete and win, but I think we need to look at the broader side of helping young people grow and achieve their dreams,” Stanton said. “I think it is so important for young women to have role models that have played at the highest level and know how to teach the game."

Indiana started last season 4-19, but Stanton could see progress being made. The Hoosiers finished with 26-30, including 17-6 in the Big Ten for third place. The 17 wins were the most in Big Ten play in a single season since 2011.

"We were battling of getting rid of the stinking thinking. When you are a program that is used to losing, you get down when teams start throwing jabs and punches,” Stanton said. “But I think in Big Ten play last year we started throwing jabs and punches back. Now this group really believes in winning so much that you can get down 5-0 like we have done this season and believe you are never out of the game."

Jenkins is a homegrown Hoosier, having been raised in Floyds Knobs, Ind. Being able to set the foundation for the program’s turnaround is even more meaningful to her.

“My reason for being here now is a lot different than it was when I first came here,” Jenkins said. “This program is headed to such a good place because of this coaching staff and how they are shaping us as people and as players. I love that we have a system in place that defines Indiana softball now."

As competitive as they are on the field, the Hoosiers never lose sight of the camaraderie sports can foster. They have dubbed part of their new culture the “Fun Zone.”

"You never know what is going to come out from us,” Jenkins said. “We have some pretty mean dance parties and have some crazy dugout repetitions. We have fun everywhere we go.”

Although the early success has been validating, Indiana has bigger goals in mind. The Hoosiers want to contend for titles and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. They host the Big Ten Tournament this year at Andy Mohr Field.

Work ethic, passion and competitive fire defined Emileigh Cooper’s career at Marshall, and made believers out of everyone.

Indiana’s players may never have met Cooper, but they are embodying her greatest qualities.

"It shows us as coaches to never give up on anyone,” Stanton said. “Always give somebody a chance because it's amazing what they can show you."

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