Cooper-Johnson is a Central figure

Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Alayah Cooper-Johnson has gone from defensive specialist to all-around threat during her career at Central. (ADAM VOGLER)

Any other time of day, she is a normal teenager. On school days, she's up at 6 a.m., eating a quick breakfast before heading off to school. On weekends, she likes to sleep in until nearly noon. She spends her free time watching television or hanging with her friends, eating pizza or chatting on her cell phone.

Then the whistle blows, the game starts, and a whole different person emerges.

Alayah Cooper-Johnson has come to play.

Cooper-Johnson is Central's all-everything senior forward. She leads the Tigers in scoring (23 ppg), rebounding (13 rpg) and game-changing plays. She single-handedly outscored the entire Sikeston team in Central's 55-25 victory over the Bulldogs in the opening game of last week's Kelso Supply Holiday Classic, erupting for 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field and hitting 7 of 12 free throws. She also pulled down 14 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end. Just for good measure, she added four steals.

That's quite a lot to expect from the diminutive Cooper-Johnson, but she plays much larger than her 5-foot-8 frame.

"She's very versatile," says Central coach Sherri Shirell, who has enjoyed the luxury of penciling Cooper-Johnson's name in the Tigers' starting lineup the past three years. "You can put her on the inside, you can move her to the outside. She's a great rebounder at 5-8. Her offensive skills have improved so much over the four years I've had her. I just really expect big things out of her for the rest of the year."

Her versatility is a nightmare for opposing coaches, who have conjured up myriad defensive schemes in an often futile effort to curtail her offensive outburts.

"As an opposing coach, she's one of the hard ones to defend because she's so dangerous," says Notre Dame coach Renee Peters, whose teams have faced the Cooper-Johnson-led Tigers each of the past three seasons as SEMO Conference foes. "She has so many tools that she can use. She's got speed, she can jump, she can shoot, she can penetrate, she can rebound. She's one of those few players that we'll focus on and make sure someone's on her the whole time because she's so talented."

Cooper-Johnson shyly acknowledges those who compliment her abilities, but she readily admits it's a by-product of her desire to become a better player, a desire that's burned within her since she first started playing the game in the second grade.

"I really, really liked it," she said about first learning the intricacies of basketball. "The coach that I had back in the second grade (LaTanya Thomas), she got me more interested by teaching me and progressing me to get better over time."

Those skills were developed while playing in middle school youth leagues and for traveling teams like Wolfpack and Southeast Dynasty. And opposing teams have been paying the price ever since.

"She's really stepped up her game this year," Peters says. "She's always been a scorer, but this year she's really stepped into a leadership role for Central."

That wasn't always the case, as the Tigers have enjoyed a number of talented on-court leaders over the years. But this year, with senior forward Chelsea Vinson sidelined after undergoing knee surgery earlier this month, Cooper-Johnson decided it was her time to step forward.

"Last year, she played a leadership role on the floor, but it was kind of a quiet one, and everybody still followed her," Shirrell said. "But now, she's become a little more vocal every day in practice. If somebody's not stepping it up, she'll let them know."

Her teammates appreciate her leadership skills.

"She's definitely that person out there that you can always look up to," says teammate Bailey Kratochvil, who has played alongside Cooper-Johnson the past seven years. "Alayah's just a really good player. She always comes ready to play. She's a leader out there. She rebounds. She does everything. She's just a really awesome teammate."

Kratochvil saw that dominating player begin to emerge when she and Cooper-Johnson were freshmen.

"She's always been a great player, but she definitely became really, really good around her freshman year," Kratochvil said. "She started developing her game and getting better and better."

Sherrill believes it's Cooper-Johnson's sheer desire that puts her ahead of the competition.

"Basically, it's just her heart," Shirrell said. "She gets out and works hard every day in practice and wants to improve her game in every aspect. She's very defensive-minded, too, and has been since her freshman year. And her offensive skills have developed over the last three years. And now she's pretty much a complete player, and not just our defensive stopper."

Being 5-foot-8 and living in the land of the giants under the basket has made Cooper-Johnson learn to work without the ball in her hands and made her a better rebounder.

"I think it's just effort and dedication," she explained about her rebounding prowess. "If I want to get something done, I'm determined. My thought is just to try and jump higher than (the opponent), and grab the ball with two hands and bring it down."

Cooper-Johnson likes to pattern herself after her favorite professional player, Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat.

"I like his all-around game," she said. "I like the way he plays. He's not a selfish player. He uses his teammates a lot. And I like that. I pick up on stuff like that."

She hopes her versatility allows her to play ball beyond this season. A four-year scholarship to a Division 1 school -- Tennessee is her favorite -- would be a dream come true. Cooper-Johnson knows what she needs to do to get to the next level.

"I have to improve on my jump shot and my ballhandling skills," she said. "I've gotten better, but there's always room for improvement."

Seeing her daughter play collegiately has been a dream of Tiesha Johnson's for a long time. Johnson starred in track for Central and realizes the kind of dedication it takes to excell at sports.

"She's my baby," Johnson said. "She's my pride and joy and I love her dearly. You just knew there was some sport she was going to be playing."

Johnson remembers her daughter walking at just seven months and playing ball with her cousins at an early age.

"I always knew she would be one of the more athletic kids among the nieces and nephews in our family," she said. "She's always loved sports. At seven she was playing ball and she was dominating. We just knew one day she was going to go for it. And I've been pushing her."

Mother and daughter live together in a modest apartment not far from downtown Cape. Cooper-Johnson, 17, has seven siblings, all on her father's side, ranging from oldest half-brother Kameo Porter, 23, to half-brother Tyreek and half-sister Tyanna, both just two years old. One half-brother, Virgil Cooper, was a high school running back in Avon Park, Fla.

Cooper-Johnson appreciates her mother's support and influence in her life.

"She's always been right there with me, by my side, during good and bad," Cooper-Johnson said. "She's always been the one pushing me, telling me 'Don't give up, things are going to be easier. There's going to be rewards at the end for your hard work and dedication.'

"At times when I felt that I wasn't progressing as a basketball player, she saw that I was. And times that I wanted to give up, she always was there saying, 'Keep pushing, keep going, don't give up. You can do it. It's something that you love and you've been working hard at since you were little. Don't turn back now, just keep moving forward.'"

Cooper-Johnson knows the legacy she wants to leave behind as a player at Central.

"I would like them to remember me not only as a good player but also a player that loves the game and loves to win and loves to help her team win," she said.

Chances are, people will also remember Cooper-Johnson as a winner.

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