Cooper named as Coast Guard's interim head softball coach
In 2018, when she departed as Fitch High School's softball coach to take a job as assistant coach at the Coast Guard Academy, Arielle Cooper remembers being hesitant to leave her alma mater, where she had so much success, winning state championships as both a player and a coach.
"Fitch is my home and was my home. We were able to accomplish great things as a team there," Cooper said. "But being at the collegiate level, not everyone gets that chance. It was like, 'Now is my chance.'"
Cooper's chance continues.
On Thursday, Cooper, a 2009 Fitch graduate, was officially named interim head coach of the Coast Guard softball team. An assistant at Coast Guard for three years, the 29-year-old Cooper takes over for longtime head coach Donna Koczajowski, who was named the academy's associate athletic director and department chair for health and physical education earlier in the year.
Cooper has been gradually settling into her new role, coaching the fall practice season at Coast Guard and serving as a member of the physical education faculty.
"When you really get the chance to be involved in athletics ... I feel different. I feel at home. I feel like this is where I'm meant to be," Cooper said in a telephone interview. "Everyone has been very welcoming. It's a great place to be. I'm so grateful for this opportunity. Not a lot of people get to experience this in a lifetime.
"The four years I've been here, honestly, I've felt a sense of belonging."
Cooper won a state championship as a senior at Fitch in 2009 and followed with a career as an All-America third baseman at Eastern Connecticut State University, where she batted .538 with 16 home runs, 43 RBI and 61 runs scored as a senior.
She served as Fitch's head softball coach for three seasons, going 74-8 with Class LL state championships in 2014 and 2016. She was 22 years old when she took over that job as interim coach during the 2014 season, a role for which Eastern coach Diana Pepin used to tell her she was a natural, while Cooper said back then she never thought of herself as coaching material.
Koczajowski, who coached the Bears to four NCAA tournament berths during a 23-year career, earned her 500th career victory this year during a spring break trip to Florida and finished 505-357-1 at Coast Guard.
A national search will be conducted to find a permanent replacement for Koczajowski, although Cooper, whom athletic director Dan Rose referred to in Thursday's press release as "dynamic," will most certainly be among those considered.
"Coach Cooper emerged from our search as a dynamic coach and instructor who is committed to developing leaders of character," Rose said in the release. "Arielle is highly regarded by her peers as a hitting instructor and has strong ties to the softball recruiting community.
"Arielle's accomplishments as a player and coach highlight an individual that pursues excellence in all aspects of her professional life. Welcome aboard, coach Cooper."
In addition to teaching at the academy, Cooper has begun settling into her office and sorting her way through an onslaught of email.
"It's a lot compacted into your first few weeks," she said. "But the happiness is there. ... Totally, the academy in itself is a whole different world to learn. Just seeing these cadet-athletes, you have so much more respect for them and the game. They are not your average college student.
"I think my type of coaching environment, I want to be somebody I needed when I was a college student or a student-athlete. I want to be what I had where at the end of the day I also care about you as a human being."
Cooper earned her bachelor's degree from Eastern in sport and leisure management and has a master's degree from Western Connecticut in applied behavior analysis.
Coast Guard was 9-1 this spring before the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak and returns 10 players from that team in addition to a talented freshman class.
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