The coincidence was too much for Vanessa Cooper to ignore.
In the midst of a 17-day recruiting road trip, the power-hitting Bellefonte softball catcher and her parents pulled onto a campus in Lowell, Mass.
And they immediately saw something that reminded them of home.
“When I went up there for my visit, I was nervous,” said Cooper, who signed her national letter of intent Friday to play at UMass-Lowell. “When I first stepped out of the car, the very first building that I saw was O’Leary Library. O’Leary is the name of Bellefonte’s fields. Just to have that piece of Bellefonte with me every day, I felt so at home. I knew I wouldn’t feel that way anywhere else and I never did.”
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She soldiered on with the rest of the recruiting trip, which included a visit as far south as Myrtle Beach, S.C. In the end, UMass-Lowell and coach Sean Cotter won out over Albany, Siena, Coastal Carolina and Rhode Island for Cooper’s services.
Cotter, a fourth-year coach, gets a fierce catcher who is one of the most feared hitters in Centre County. Having started as a freshman on a team that made it to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals, Cooper is hitting well over .400 for her career and has shown a penchant for the big hit. She’s best known for blasting two home runs, one off the Penn State scoreboard, in an 8-1 rout of Huntingdon in the District 6 title game in 2012.
Cooper said heading to UMass-Lowell completes a dream that she and her older sister Hannah, who won a PIAA title with the Lady Raiders, had of playing Division I softball. Hannah, a sophomore, is catching at Central Connecticut State, which advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season.
While some families have sibling rivalries, nothing could be farther from the truth in the Cooper household. In fact, Vanessa credits Hannah for her success at landing a Division I scholarship,
“I was watching my sister with glazed eyes — wanting to do the things she’s doing, being so proud of her and wanting to feel the things that she’s felt,” Vanessa said. “… I would not be where I am or going to school where I am if it wasn’t for Hannah. She’s put that drive in me that I never would have had. I’m very competitive and to have someone that pushed me. It made me the athlete I am today and I couldn’t give her more credit for it.”
While her sister jumped right into a Division I program that made the NCAA Tournament, Vanessa will have to wait to get a chance at the postseason.
UMass-Lowell announced in February that it would upgrade all of its Division II programs to Division I status. As part of an NCAA mandate for reclassification, the River Hawks will have to wait four years before they are eligible for the postseason. They officially became a member of the America East Conference on July 1.
Cooper doesn’t mind waiting for the chance and says she already has a redshirt season planned for her junior year. She expects to have an opportunity to start as a freshman.
The school’s decision to go Division I put it over the top as far as Cooper was concerned. She had met Cotter, whose club was 26-21-1 last season, while playing summer league ball in Connecticut and liked him, but she had a goal to keep alive.
“My dream, as my sister’s was, was to play Division I,” Cooper said. “I fell in love with him from the beginning, but I kept him on the backburner and said we’ll see what happens.”
As far as Cooper is concerned, things worked out great — even if she had to keep a secret during the long car trip, which began in late July.
“I knew once we got to UMass that it was what I wanted,” Cooper said. “I held it from my mom (Devonnie) for days. When I finally told her, she was so ecstatic. My family has never been more proud.”
She plans to major in sports psychology at UMass-Lowell.
“I’ve always been interested in the way the mind works and the attitude that people have and why they have it,” Cooper explained. “It’s been something I’ve always I wanted to do. Why not help athletes and be able to connect with them like I can’t with anybody else?”
She’s not worried about the New England weather with several softball trips on future schedules.
“We’re going to play a lot in Florida, Nebraska, Texas and Mexico,” she said.
And then there’s a certain two-hour, 10-minute trip South to New Britain, Conn., that Cooper is really looking forward to for some non-league action in the fall.
That’s when the River Hawks take on Central Connecticut State and she’ll get a chance to play against her sister for the first time since summer leagues.
“It will just be fun,” she said. “It will be tough for my parents, but luckily we’re the same color blue so I think they’ll be all right. I’m so proud of her. It’s so much fun playing against her.”
As for her remaining high school career, Cooper has modest goals.
“I don’t know where I am with my hits but I want to get to 100 hits,” she said. “The other is to just make contact.”
Usually, when she does that, the ball goes pretty far.
Even, all the way to New England.