NAIA national tourney brings bittersweet end for Cape Central graduate Alayah Cooper-Johnson
Perspective changes when the end is near.
For former Saxony Lutheran standouts Brianna Mueller and Raegan Wieser, the NAIA National Championship Tournament beginning today in Billings, Montana, is a shiny jewel at the end of great beginnings to college careers. But for former Cape Girardeau Central girls basketball star Alayah Cooper-Johnson, this week brings far more bittersweet emotions.
The 2012-13 Southeast Missourian Girls Basketball Player of the Year, Cooper-Johnson carved herself into someone capable of moving on to the next level, and at Mineral Area College she built herself into a player who could extend her playing days for another two years at Central Methodist in Fayette, Missouri.
Now, in the waning moments of her basketball career, the Eagles (23-9), a No. 5 seed, are set to take on fourth-seeded Biola (Calif.) (23-7) today at 10:15 a.m. in the tournament's opening round.
But the final chapter is made harder to swallow because "playing days" is more like "watching days" for Cooper-Johnson, after the CMU senior suffered a severe knee injury in January.
Fresh off of Christmas break and back in practice, on Jan. 2 Cooper-Johnson cut on the ball and felt her anterior cruciate ligament and both menisci tear.
A year earlier, the former Tiger had played in 31 games, averaging 11.9 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game while receiving All-Heart of America Conference honors. The Eagles qualified for the NAIA National Championship tournament, but fell in the first round.
This season she was third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding, but that practice turned out to be the last time she'd step out on the basketball court.
"It's been very hard," Cooper-Johnson said. "I've been trying to stay positive about the situation because I get very emotional when I think about it or talk about it. I'm glad we got to got to nationals last year and I had that experience. But it's been hard to watch and not be out there."
The trip to the 2016 tournament left an impression on the Cape Girardeau native, and she believes the Eagles are prepping well and in a good position to advance. She's also glad that she gets to soak in the experience one last time, even if it's not the same.
"What I remember most is just the tournament atmosphere," Cooper-Johnson said. "As a team we had a pretty good game (last year) but we fell short. In the fourth quarter we just ran out of gas. I played well, the overall experience was really fun and I'm glad to be back this year even though I'm not physically out there."
Cooper-Johnson admits the journey to Montana comes with mixed emotions, as she celebrates the achievements of her teammates and friends, but knows she won't have an opportunity to affect what happens on the court.
As she ponders where life will take her next -- she said she's still looking at her options, but plans to pursue something related to her degree in criminal justice -- those mixed emotions will always frame the way she feels about her basketball journey. But watching her teammates make a run would certainly help.
"I would say I'm not 100 percent satisfied, because of course I'd like to be a champion before I'm done," Cooper-Johnson said. "I was a conference champion last year and a conference and regional champion at MAC, but I've never been a national champ.
"Besides that, yeah, I've been satsified with my career."