By Ken Hamwey
Staff Sports Writer
Conor Cooke is very appreciative he’ll get a chance to play baseball.
Last spring, the King Philip catcher was a junior who expected to provide quality leadership as a captain, add some offensive clout and utilize a variety of skills behind the plate. But, the baseball season was canceled, along with all other spring sports, when COVID-19 struck.
All his excitement and anticipation disappeared, taken away as if demolished by a hurricane. To be a captain after a promising sophomore season was indeed exciting. And, the Warriors appeared to have the talent to be a tournament team. Cooke also was eager to get started with a new coach — Jeff Plympton Jr. The coach’s debut and Cooke’s role as a captain had to wait a year.
“No sports last spring hurt, but mostly it was sad for our seniors,’’ Cooke said. “It was heart-wrenching they couldn’t compete before graduating. As for me, I wish I could have gained some experience being a captain, and it would have been nice for coach Plympton to get his program started. We all were expecting to qualify for the playoffs.’’
Cooke, who also was a captain for KP’s hockey team, is eager to return to the diamond. Although he thoroughly enjoyed his four-year hockey career as a capable right wing, the 18-year-old Wrentham native will be committed to baseball for the long haul. After what he hopes will be a positive interscholastic campaign, Cooke will enroll at Brown University where he’ll compete for the Bears.
“I’m just grateful to be playing baseball this season,’’ he emphasized. “I hope it’s a 20-game schedule, but if not, I still feel blessed. It’s unfortunate that COVID-19 has forced different rules but I’ll do whatever it takes to play. It’s disappointing there’ll be no statewide playoffs because the tourney was definitely within our reach.’’
Cooke, who plans on majoring in economics at Brown, is acutely aware that athletics should be in the background as the virus continues to claim lives. His perspective is spot on. “Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of everyone,’’ he offered. “We want our families, our schools, our state and the country to be safe.’’
Being safe was one thing that runners trying to steal second base didn’t experience when the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Cooke was starting 13 games as a sophomore. His strong arm is a prime asset along with a high baseball IQ, sharp instincts, solid skills, quality leadership and athleticism.
“Conor has a good presence on the field,’’ Plympton said. “He manages a game effectively and our pitchers respect him. He’s got a powerful swing, so we’ll likely make him our cleanup hitter. On defense, he’s very good at throwing out runners and blocking the plate.
A .280 hitter as a sophomore, it’s Cooke’s demeanor in handling pitchers and his defensive savvy that’s impressive.
“I enjoy throwing out runners,’’ he said. “It’s a challenge to cut down a runner trying to advance. I also try to encourage our pitchers. If they’re struggling, I emphasize that they’re in their position for a reason. I let them know there’s no worries and I try to build trust.’’
Teammates trusted Cooke when he called signals during his soph campaign, and on two occasions he really shined. “Two games were very memorable that season,’’ Cooke said. “I had the regular flu but returned and helped us beat Canton, 5-4. I went 2-for-2 and had an RBI single. We were big underdogs against Mansfield but upset them, 3-2. I called my best game and Jake Silveria pitched superbly.’’
Cooke’s goals this spring are for KP to win as many games as possible. “I also would like to see us win any playoff for the Hockomock League title,’’ he noted. “Franklin and Mansfield will be strong contenders, too. Individually, my goals are to hit .350, hit some home runs and get a decent amount of RBIs.’’
Cooke likes the idea of hitting in the No. 4 slot. “If I hit cleanup, that’ll help me drive in runs,’’ he said. “Hitting in that slot means the coach has confidence in me. I also would like it because it comes with pressure and I like dealing with pressure situations.’’
KP’s ice hockey coach, Paul Carlo, got an up-close look at how Cooke handled pressure situations. “Conor led by example and by being vocal,’’ Carlo said. “He’s a natural leader with all-around ability. A dependable hard-worker, he’s a great ambassador for KP and was a pleasure to coach.’’
A physical player on the ice, Cooke had 9 goals and 4 assists and helped the Warriors go 9-1. “My most memorable moment in hockey was beating Franklin, 5-4, for the first time in 20 years,’’ he said. “I scored twice and got the game-winning goal.’’
There should be more euphoric outcomes on the horizon when Cooke dons a Brown University uniform and hopefully takes charge as its catcher. A National Honor Society student, his only college choice was Brown.
“I committed verbally as a junior,’’ Cooke said. “I wanted to play college baseball and I’ll get the opportunity there. They have a good program and the coaching staff is experienced. Academics there are top-notch and I plan to major in business.’’
Calling his parents (Julie and Chris) role models for their support, encouragement and motivating nature, Cooke relies on a competitive philosophy that focuses on hard work and winning. “I hate to lose,’’ he said. “It’s also important to have fun and that happens when winning occurs.’’
Aware that sports teach valuable life lessons, Cooke understands that hockey and baseball have helped him to deal with the ups and downs of COVID-19. “I’ve learned how to cope with the way it’s changed how we compete,’’ he noted. “It’s a life lesson in overcoming adversity. Sports also teach how to develop a strong work ethic and that an athlete shouldn’t take anything for granted. Sports have also taught me how to be a leader.’’
Cooke knows that a transition will take place when he plays for Brown. “I’ll be competing against all-stars,’’ he said. “There’ll be no drop off in talent. And, the speed of the game will be faster.’’
Cooke also knows his career at KP is heading for the finish line. “It’s kind of a bittersweet feeling,’’ he admitted. “I want to finish on a high note in baseball and I’m thankful there’ll be a season. Just competing is a blessing.’’
Conor Cooke has dynamic perspective, especially at a time that’s been difficult for students and athletes.
He’s the real deal.