Having First Two College Seasons End Prematurely, PHS Grad Cooke Primed to Star for Swarthmore Baseball
MORE TO COME: Paul Cooke showing his game face as he got ready for his sophomore season with the Swarthmore College baseball team. Former Princeton High standout Cooke has hit .267 with one homer and five RBIs over two abbreviated campaigns with the Garnet. (Photo by Brandon Hodnett, provided courtesy of Swarthmore College Athletics Communications)
By Bill Alden
Paul Cooke hasn’t been able to get in a complete season in his first two years with Swarthmore College baseball team, but he has still made an impact for the program.
As a freshman in 2019, former Princeton High standout Cooke hit .600 with six hits in 10 at-bats, one homer and four RBIs before getting sidelined for the rest of the season by an ankle injury.
This past spring, Cooke picked up two hits and an RBI before the season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic, giving him a career batting average of .267 in college play.
Before he even took the field for his first game as a freshman, Cooke had developed a comfort level with the squad.
“I was really lucky to have six seniors my freshman year that were just really welcoming and did a great job of getting you up to speed and showing you the ropes,” said Cooke.
“They were really eager to do that, along with the coaches. They were all helping me to feel really comfortable and I didn’t really have to worry as much about team dynamics and fitting in. It allowed me to focus more on developing as a player and performing in those fall practices which helped me a lot.”
Cooke started his Swarthmore career with a bang, slugging a two-run homer in his second college game.
“I worked the count a little bit and then the pitcher threw me one I could get to,” recalled Cooke, a 6’0, 200-pound outfielder.
“I was just thinking about hitting a line drive. I hit it and off the bat, I knew I got it pretty well. It ended up going over the fence in center field. It definitely took the pressure off for that first week of freshman season.”
Building on that blast, Cooke was emerging as a star hitter for the Gartner before getting hurt.
“I was coming off the bench in pinch-hitting roles and I was starting to work my way into a role with the team,” said Cooke.
“It was actually down on our spring trip in Florida where I tore my deltoid in my ankle and broke a couple of bones in there. I had to take a medical redshirt.”
Overcoming that setback, Cooke was poised for a big sophomore season.
“Coming into the fall, I felt pretty good,” said Cooke. “I had a really good rehab experience in terms of what they did for my ankle, so that helped me come into this year. I felt confident because I felt like I had proven that I belong there. I obviously had a lot of work to do. I had an idea of what I had to do; I was able to go into the season with that in mind.”
Cooke’s confidence was shaken a bit this spring as he got off to a rocky start, hitting .100 through Swarthmore’s first nine games.
“I definitely struggled in the beginning of this past year,” said Cooke.
“I was hitting into hard outs and not finding holes. So I started to press a little bit and came outside of myself a little bit. For me, it was a learning experience.”
In mid-March, Cooke and his teammates experienced a shock during their annual spring trip to Florida, learning that their season was getting canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were lucky enough to find out before our last game and we were able to do a proper sendoff for the seniors,” said Cooke of the squad which topped Baldwin Wallace 8-1 in that final game on March 12 to end 2020 with a 10-2 record.
“That was disappointing for sure just because we had gotten really close as a team and we were playing really well. I think we ended on a six-game winning streak. A lot of seniors were contributing whether it be on the field or just off the field. They were a great group of leaders and to see them have to go through that was the toughest part of the whole thing.”
Keeping in contact virtually, the group was able to remain close from afar.
“We had a couple of full-team Zoom sessions; we talked about how everyone was doing and how everyone was coping with the changes,” said Cooke.
“The other thing that really helped us was that we made a Snapchat group chat with all of the position players on our team. We would document our workouts, that was a nice way to keep each other accountable and make sure that we had a little bit of community. That is how you get through all of those workouts and make them enjoyable, doing them with your teammates. It is close as you can get.”
Once at home, Cooke developed a good workout routine. “I was able to go online and get weights,” said Cooke.
“I have a bench here and I have a lot of equipment so I was able to do that. I was doing a lot of hitting off the tee and my dad would throw to me at the field. I got pretty good workouts in during quarantine.”
Utilizing that conditioning, Cooke has been playing in a college summer league based at Mercer County Community College.
“It has been really great competition, it is about 100 guys from around the state, everybody is excited to be back on the field and giving it their all,” said Cooke of the Sandlot League, noting that it is a mix of Division I, Division III, and junior college players that plays three games a week over a five-week schedule.
“The guys have really been good about the protocols. We wear masks in the dugout. We are not shaking hands, we leave right away. The guys have been pretty compliant with it because we want to make sure that everyone stays healthy and safe. It has been nice to just to get back out there and face some really good competition and be able to play after such a long layoff. We prepare all winter to play and then it gets taken away.”
With Swarthmore canceling fall sports and only allowing freshmen and sophomores back on campus for the first semester, the team’s upperclassmen are looking for a way to work together.
“We are trying to plan and coordinate,” said Cooke. “We are trying to go somewhere there is not as much of a presence of COVID and be able to work out as a team, whether it be on a field or in a gym.”
Once the Garnet get back on the field, Cooke is primed to emerge as a bigger presence for the squad.
“In some sense, it is difficult not having had a full season yet but in another sense it is somewhat of a blessing because I have been able to go through two full off-seasons,” said Cooke, who has four years of eligibility remaining due to his medical redshirt and getting another season because of the COVID-19 cancellation this spring and is hoping to attend law school and potentially wrap up his college career while studying there.
“Right now I am probably more motivated than I ever been to go into this year, trying to perform for my team. I really like what we have as a team. We are all really hungry going forward but just having the first two years taken away makes me feel really excited to get back out there with my team.”