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Evanston’s Cooley focusing on academics

02/20/2013, 8:40pm CST
By Eric Van Dril

Whether Evanston senior Alecia Cooley will immediately go down the Division I path — or instead opt to attend a junior college — depends on how high she can raise her grade-point average in the coming months.

Evanston's Alecia Cooley makes a move against Niles West on Thursday, January 31, 2013 in Evanston. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

Alecia Cooley likely will choose one of two paths once her high school girls basketball career concludes.

Cooley, with the help of Evanston coach Elliot Whitefield, has been working toward a full scholarship to a Division I school. A 6-foot-2 senior, Cooley has drawn interest from mid-level Division I colleges.

Cooley has played at a high level this season, averaging a double-double and serving as the defensive anchor for the CSL South champions. But whether she’ll be able to immediately go down the Division I path — or instead opts to attend a junior college — depends on how high she can raise her grade-point average in the coming months.

“They just got their semester grades after the first [semester],” Whitefield said. “I haven’t really talked to the counselor yet. We’ll know even if it’s possible when I talk to them. All I know is she’ll have to do very well [in her final semester] to even have a shot.”

Cooley has been doing better in school since, in Whitefield’s words, “a very poor first semester, freshman year.” She’s been aided by increased attention from Whitefield, who said he constantly looks at her grades and makes sure she turns in each assignment, even though he teaches at Niles West.

Other girls on the team, specifically senior Gabrielle Nottage, also have helped Cooley in school.

Whitefield said they have taken time out of study halls or even practices to explain concepts to Cooley and other girls on the team who might need help.

Still, the pressure of continually trying to raise her grades has been a constant in Cooley’s life since her first semester of high school. That, along with trying to pick a college and serving as an indispensable piece for the Wildkits — “she is our only big person,” said Evanston junior Sierra Clayborn — has heaped a great deal of pressure onto the senior’s shoulders.

“It’s a lot more pressure, since time is winding down,” Cooley said of trying to find a college.

Whitefield added: “It’s a little bit more pressure on her, but you know what? That’s probably good for her. It’s one thing to feel pressure here in athletics, but athletics only goes so far. You’ve got to hit the books. For her to feel a little pressure to do well, and for her to actually respond to it gives her even more confidence that she can do it.”

Junior colleges can provide athletes with one or two years to grow accustomed to more difficult school work and the independence of higher education. It also can result in a Division I scholarship.

Sinclair Cunningham, a 2012 Evanston graduate, provides an example of how enrolling in a junior college can pay dividends. Cunningham transferred from Young to Evanston for her senior season because of academic issues, and she currently plays at Kishwaukee College in Malta.

Cunningham has been one of the country’s top junior college players this season. The freshman is averaging 16 points, 11 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game for Kishwaukee and currently has an offer to play at Auburn. Other Division I schools also have shown interest, according to Whitefield.

Cooley “may -- and it wouldn’t be a horrible thing -- end up going the JC route,” Whitefield said. “There’s been a lot of top-level junior colleges interested. If she has to do that, she’ll learn from it and hopefully do well there.”

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