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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    Coast Guard’s confidence has been instilled by Cooper

    Coast Guard Academy softball coach Arielle Cooper talks to players during a game against Mitchell College on April 11. Cooper, a Fitch High School graduate and a former Eastern Connecticut State University All-American, is in her third season with the Bears, serving as interim head coach in 2021 before being named the program’s permanent head coach that summer. No. 3-seeded Coast Guard begins play in the NEWMAC tournament Wednesday versus No. 6 Wheaton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Coast Guard Academy’s Isabelle Shroyer takes a swing during a game against Mitchell College on April 11. The Bears begin play in the NEWMAC tournament Wednesday against Wheaton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Coast Guard Academy’s Natalie Beck fields a ball during a game against Mitchell College on April 11. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    New London — Shortly after pouring out of the dugout to celebrate a dramatic walk-off win, the Coast Guard Academy softball team gathered on the field Monday.

    Coach Arielle Cooper stepped into the huddle and quickly refocused the Bears for the second game of the doubleheader.

    Sure, scoring two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to rally past New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference leader MIT is a win worth celebrating.

    But Cooper wants those kinds of wins to be the expectation.

    “You’ve got to act like you’ve been here before and we can do this,” Cooper said. “The celebration will be maybe at the end of the week.”

    The Bears (29-9, 13-5) are in a good place heading into this week’s double-elimination NEWMAC tournament. A No. 3 seed, they’ll take on No. 6 Wheaton at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Springfield College.

    They finished the regular season strong, winning seven of their last eight games, with the lone loss coming in the second game of Monday’s doubleheader. They’ve posted their most overall and conference wins since 2011.

    Monday’s come-from-behind victory — senior Selena Serna’s two-run double was the difference in the 5-4 win — served as another example of the program’s growth under Cooper, who was named head coach in August, 2021 after a season as interim head coach.

    Cooper has instilled confidence, a competitive spirit and will to win in her team.

    “We’re really showing up when we need to and that’s the momentum we’ve had the whole season,” Cooper said. “It’s the little things that matter and hanging in there and not just giving up.

    “Overall, we deserve to do well. We’re talented one through 15 on our bench. Every person on our team has a role and every role is important. If you are running for our catcher and scoring runs, that’s important.

    “... The last couple of weeks, we’re not worried about our opponent, we’re just worried about ourselves. If you can focus on yourself and what you’re doing right and what you need to change, you can have these outcomes.”

    Cooper knows a thing or two about being part of a winning program.

    As a player, Cooper achieved All-America status while helping a powerhouse Eastern Connecticut State University program make regular appearances in the NCAA tournament. She graduated as the career leader in batting average, slugging percentage, hits, home runs and total bases.

    As a coach, Cooper guided Fitch High School, her alma mater, to three Eastern Connecticut Conference titles, two state championships and a 74-8 record before spending three seasons (2018-20) as an assistant on Donna Koczajowski’s staff at Coast Guard.

    The Bears have steadily improved since Cooper took over the reins. They took another jump this season, winning 10 more games overall than in 2022.

    “We were a young team the last two seasons,” Cooper said. “You build around the confidence level, too. Now that we’ve seen a higher level of play and competed, that is what we’re basing our practices and our game techniques off of. You’ve got to get better. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

    When Cooper needs advice, she often reaches out to her college coach, Diana Pepin, who has won over 550 games in 22 seasons at Eastern.

    Cooper wants to have the same impact on her players.

    “I had a coach who is really important to me and helped me be the person that I am,” Cooper said. “Coach Pepin can give me tips and pointers. I can call her any time of the day. But, also, I want to be what I had for them. And I think that’s important.

    “My relationship with Donna as well has brought me to a great professional level, working for her. It’s special. It’s great to be here.”

    Pepin sees big things ahead for her former player.

    “She’s a competitor and she’s passionate about the sport,” said Pepin during a break from watching Coast Guard’s doubleheader on Monday. “She loves growing the game. And she’s just done a tremendous job here. … I think she’ll do some amazing things.”

    Right now, Cooper’s focus is on preparing her team for the NEWMAC tournament.

    Coast Guard will be facing a team in Wheaton that eliminated the Bears in last season’s conference tourney.

    Since making four straight trips to the NCAA tournament from 2009 to 2012, the Bears have fallen short of earning a bid.

    Cooper has the Bears on track to break that drought, whether that happens this season or in the next few years.

    “My expectation is to do well and for us to be better than last year,” said Cooper, asked about this week’s NEWMAC tourney. “If we’re happy with our performance, whether we win or lose, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with them being happy because I’m worried about them, too. It’s not always just about sports. It’s about being positive.

    “They have to want to show up, too. Building that culture of every day is not going to be easy. Some days, you’re just at 70% and that’s all you can give.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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