Seniors at the root of Cooper turnaround

Robbinsdale Cooper seniors Talalyiah Rich (left) and Chelsey McGee have helped guide the Cooper girls basketball team to 59 victories since debuting with the Hawks in December of 2010. (Sun Post staff photo by Nick Clark)
Robbinsdale Cooper seniors Talalyiah Rich (left) and Chelsey McGee have helped guide the Cooper girls basketball team to 59 victories since debuting with the Hawks in December of 2010. (Sun Post staff photo by Nick Clark)

The conversation was never meant to throw slight at what the girls basketball season in the North Suburban Conference could look like this winter.

Nor was it intended to diminish what the competition level would be.

Still, considering Robbinsdale Cooper’s expected place in the conference pecking order, it was a talk needed to be had.

“I wanted them to understand what they were capable of,” said Cooper head coach Jennifer Rademacher. “We didn’t think there was any reason, with the type of team we had, that they couldn’t win every game. That was not to put pressure on them. That was just the belief that we had.”

It was a far cry from what those pre-conference speeches sounded like just four seasons ago, when Cooper was hoping to just win a game.

Any game.

But in the midst of transforming the program from the one-win team it was in 2009-10 to the group that is now just two games away from completing that North Suburban quest for perfection, it has become obvious where it started.

Seniors Talalyiah Rich and Chelsey McGee had just completed their ninth-grade year playing high school basketball at Minneapolis North High School. The two played an integral role in helping the Polars play into the 2008-09 Class 3A state title game, and they were even more important the following year, when they combined to average 22 points per game as North once again advanced all the way into the 3A state final.

Yet, both sought refuge elsewhere, for reasons that extended into both athletics and academics.

Cooper provided the haven they were looking for, and in that instant, the revolution of girls basketball at the school at begun.

“We saw it as a place we could come in and play,” said McGee. “When we were looking for a new school, my mom looked up the record. They weren’t very good, but we saw it as a place we could help turn around. All we wanted was something new. This was it.”

Word had spread of the two stars transferring to Cooper, but nothing was ever officially finalized until the day they step foot in school.

Unlike many transfer stories from year’s past, this wasn’t a recruiting effort on Cooper’s end. The Hawks really didn’t have much to sell.

The team was 1-22 the year before the two came on board, and they hadn’t even sniffed .500 since the 2006-07 team finished 12-14.

“You here those stories, but for our team, it was all of a sudden they were just here,” said Rademacher. “Even that was kind of tempered, because we didn’t know if they would be eligible or not. I’m sure they looked at our record and didn’t know what to think. It’s worked out great. They’ve always kind seemed like Cooper kids.”

The two are certainly that now.

“Never did I think I would be going to Cooper High School, but I’m sure glad we are,” said Rich. “It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I love this place. It feels like home.”

That feeling is invigorated in the school halls, where the success of the basketball programs is now a shared one between the boys and girls.

Prior to the arrival of Rich and McGee, Cooper was always a basketball school. But that was mainly because of what they boys teams had accomplished.

Before then, the girls were generally an afterthought to the boys. That changed for good on Dec. 17 of 2010.

As they waited for their eligibility issues to be resolved, Rich and McGee were forced to sit out Cooper’s first seven games of that season.  They debuted Dec. 17 against Irondale, and at the time, the Hawks were struggling at 1-6 on the year.

But they would beat Irondale that night 67-52 behind a 15-point showing from Rich, and nine points from McGee.

The team would go on to win 16 times that winter, finishing on a 15-5 tear after the two were officially on the roster.

Last year, Cooper upped that overall record to 23-5. Now this season, the girls are 19-5 heading into their final week of the regular season.

They’ve also made good so far on their goal of a perfect conference season, winning each of the 14 games they have played to take a half-game lead over Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the chase for what would be Cooper’s first ever girls basketball conference championship.

As fate would have it, the schedule makers have BSM and Cooper playing Feb. 19 in St. Louis Park.

“I can’t wait,” said McGee. “Since we came here and kind of started everything, we want to finish everything. That is our chance to do it.”

Cooper will visit North Branch this week with a Friday, Feb. 22 road trip that will conclude the regular season.

A week from now, the Hawks will be knee deep in the Class 4A, Section 6 tournament, where heavy favorite Hopkins and a host of other talent from the Lake Conference will pose a monumental challenge should Cooper set its sights on a state tournament.

That, as the Rich and McGee put it, would be an incredible way to go out. But it isn’t the dream. They are already living that.

“Since the day we started here, everything has been so amazing,” said Rich. “I couldn’t ask for more from a school. It’s been everything I hoped it would be. There is a burst of energy everyday we come to school. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Contact Nick Clark at [email protected]