First, though, the Salina Central forward has some unfinished business in high school. Cooper made his senior season debut by scoring a hat trick in the Mustangs’ 6-2 road victory over Andover Central in the opener for both teams Tuesday night.
“Most teams would start panicking at that point,” Cooper said. “We’re an older team and kept our composure at all times.”
It was Andover Central’s first game under new coach Jamie Harding, the former Newman University star and Wichita Wing who just retired as a player. Harding also played professionally in the Kansas City area and is a veteran club soccer coach.
Harding described the Andover Central debut as “not bad.”
“Salina Central is a very good team and we’ve still got some growing to do,” Harding said. “You can tell when you’ve got a majority of players playing club throughout the year as opposed to some of our players that may not. The quality, the intensity, is just different. But you learn every game.”
The game had barely started when Salina Central midfielder Tanner Monroy hammered in a goal in the top left-hand corner.
Jesse Lennon set up Cooper’s first score, an ugly play next to the Andover Central goal that ended with Cooper on the ground. He said Jaguar goalkeeper Chad Brown inadvertently kicked him in the head, which resulted in a bruise he displayed over his left eye.
About a minute and a half later, Lennon scored a goal himself. Just six minutes and 48 seconds into the game, Salina Central had a 3-0 lead.
Perhaps worse for Andover Central, the Mustang offense was absolutely dominating the Jaguars’ side of the field. For the first seven minutes, the ball rarely crossed midfield.
“You could kind of see our heads go down,” Harding said. “But these boys are turning into men right now. They’re learning you can’t stay down.”
The Jaguars didn’t.
With three minutes left in the first half, Andover Central’s Jace Peckham hit a left-footed turnaround shot to get the Jaguars on the board. Salina Central took a 3-1 lead into halftime.
That’s the way it stayed for more than 10 minutes into the second half, until the Jaguars’ Jarrett Whitcomb found himself alone on a fast break. He was caught by defenders just as he shot near the goal. The ball was deflected and three players hit the turf.
On a great second effort, though, Whitcomb scrambled to his feet, shot the ball and scored, narrowing Salina Central’s lead to 3-2.
Earlier in the second half, Cooper just missed scoring on a head shot. Unfortunately for Andover Central, he was just getting warmed up.
While he was being defended, Cooper answered Whitcomb’s goal by grounding a pass with his chest, turning around and making an off-balance 25-yard shot with his left foot that bounced once and found the net.
Cooper scored his third goal – and the game’s last – after Barkley Edison started a fast break from about 50 yards. Cooper isolated Brown one on one while closing in from the right side, and tapped the ball in on the left side as the goalkeeper dove.
“They were a very good team with their runs,” Harding said. “They were very disciplined and they knew where the ball was going to be played. So it looked easy for them.”