Heritage baseball coaches Robbie Bennett and Bret Lindsey both feel strongly that Maryville College is getting a bargain in signing D.J. Cooper to a letter of intent to play baseball for the Scots.
In mentioning that Cooper won’t turn 18 until entering MC in the fall, his coaches think the go-to player hasn’t even touched the surface of his potential.
“He still has a baby face, and I bet he’ll add a couple of inches and some pounds, giving him more power,” Bennett, Heritage’s baseball head coach and athletic director, said.
“(Cooper) has still got some growing to do and he has a lot of upside,” Lindsey added. Bennett said in opening remarks at Friday’s signing ceremony that Cooper was “the kind that I like, who plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
The pitcher-outfielder was a key element in the Heritage run into the regional tournament this past season, including several strong outings against perennial rivals Maryville.
Cooper modestly joked that “it’s best not to talk about that,” when asked about his hitting this past season, but in addition to pitching six strong innings for the Mountaineers against Maryville in district playoffs, he drove in what proved to be the game-winning run as Heritage claimed a region tourney spot over the Rebels on May 8.
Praising his all-around athleticism, by mentioning Cooper’s role as quarterback for the Mountaineer football team as well as excellent outfield work when not on the mound, Bennett spoke of how unflappable and focused the graduating senior could be. Bennett recalled a game this season when he had to relieve Cooper after he was finally touched and lost a no-hit bid in the fifth inning. Cooper remained unfazed when Bennett came to the mound. Knowing from experience that most players in such a situation would be angry or despondent.
“(Cooper) wasn’t upset, wasn’t emotional, he just calmly said, ‘Well, they finally started hitting me, coach,’” Bennett said.
Lindsey went even broader in his praise, thanking Cooper’s entire family and saying “it’s a breath of fresh air when you get the whole family to come in and give 110 percent.”
The graduate had invitations to walk on at larger schools in-state but chose to stay local.
“I thought being further away from home, with a change of scenery and stuff, could be good,” Cooper said, “but Maryville offered me a roster spot, and I knew the academics would be better there.”
Showing his versatility, Cooper was a promising wide-receiver for the Mountaineers before injuries led to his moving to quarterback. Being familiar with MC football because of past visits for team camps, could possibly float him from the diamond to the gridiron once again.
“Depending on how the freshman year goes, I only plan on playing baseball, but that could change,” he said.
The diamond Scots finished 26-13 this past season, but flamed out late after being ranked nationally earlier in the season. Cooper, who finished this past season with an ERA around 2.50, hopes to help MC move to the next level during his time at Scotland Yard. Setting his goals high is natural to Cooper, who strove to meet the Heritage strike-out total set by Trevor Clifton, now throwing for the Tennessee Smokies, the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A affiliate.
With 65 strikeouts, Cooper fell short of Clifton’s mark of 79 whiffs set in 2013, but that’s OK for Cooper.
“(Clifton) was probably the best to ever come through Heritage,” he said, “so you should always strive to be the best.”