2011 MSU Athletics Hall of Fame Class: Dana Cooke
Sept. 21, 2011
Michigan State will induct five new members into its Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday, Sept. 22. In the third of a five-part series this week on msuspartans.com, online columnist Steve Grinczel profiles former volleyball All-American Dana Cooke.
A hall-of-fame career isn't always defined by statistics. To be sure, Dana Cooke has the bona fides to validate every honor she's ever received as a Michigan State volleyball player.
The two-time All-American set the single-season school record for total blocks (191) and block assists (163) in 1995. Cooke's 581 total career blocks rank second, her 1,245 digs are fifth and her 149 service aces are sixth on MSU's all-time list. She played in the third-most sets (460) and fifth-most matches (132) in program history.
What set Cooke apart, however, were her immeasurables, which the Spartans counted on while winning their first-ever Big Ten championship, defending the title the following season, playing in three straight NCAA tournaments from '94-96 and reaching national semifinal for the first time in '95.
"I think what I brought to the team was a good sense of leadership, knowing that everyone is motivated by something different and knowing how to get everyone on the same page when you've got some girls who are right there and some who want to turn tail and run," Cooke said. "It's up to the captains to make sure your other players don't get crushed in the meat-grinder that is high-performance athletic sport - how you get the most out of them, but still make sure they're going to be there to perform when you need them to be."
Would it be fair to characterize Cooke as the heart and soul of those championship teams?
"Absolutely," said her former MSU teammate, Jennifer Whitehead-Robinson. "We had a ton of talented players - but often you see those kinds of teams fall apart and crumble. I really think Dana was our strength and our rock."
Cooke left Burlington, Ontario, in `93 to play for noted taskmaster Chuck Erbe, who was just beginning his 12-year run as the Spartans' head coach.
"I came in as a freshman a lot more as an individual than a team player," said Cooke. "I walked in and remember thinking, `I know more than all these people, I know more than Chuck, I know more than everybody.' I was a nightmare, really.
"But by the end of it, we were all in it for each other. Even though it took all those individuals to make a great team, we were a great team together and that's what made it so incredible. It wasn't just about one person trying to break out; it was about everyone working together."
Michigan State finished with a 9-22 overall record, 5-15 Big Ten mark and 10th-place conference showing in Cooke's first season. A year later, the Spartans improved to 17-15 and 9-11 while taking seventh in the league and earning the school's first NCAA bid.
As a junior in '95, Cooke and fellow MSU Athletics Hall-of-Famer Val Sterk led the Spartans to their high-water mark: 34-3 overall, 19-1 and undisputed Big Ten champs, and a perfect 20-0 in Jenison Field House.
Michigan State advanced to the Final Four for the only time in school history, but fell seven points short of the national title match because of a 2-3 (15-10, 8-15, 8-15, 15-9, 8-15) semifinal loss to Nebraska, the eventual champion.
Cooke became one of only two MSU players to record triple-doubles, both of which came against Penn State. Her 19 kills, 21 digs and 12 blocks against the Nittany Lions on Oct. 21, 1995 stands out as one of the greatest individual performances by a Spartan.
Cooke's senior season ended with a 26-7 record, an 18-2 Big Ten finish that was good for a share of the championship, and a 3-1 loss to Florida in the NCAA Central Regional final.
Despite also being named as a co-captain (twice), All-Big Ten (twice), Academic All-Big Ten (three times) and Academic All-American (twice), Cooke enters the MSU Hall through the perspective of humility.
"To think of me in the same company of someone like a Magic Johnson or a Duffy Daugherty is weird," said Cooke. "There are people in there who have buildings named after them, and then there's me. But I'm going to take it, don't worry about that."
Cooke actually received her induction notification in 2010, but asked if she could delay it to attend the wedding of her best friend since kindergarten - the type of life-experience she missed all-too often because of her commitment to volleyball. Despite having a year to get used to the idea of seeing her face etched in glass on the façade of the Smith Academic Center, Cooke didn't covet individual acclaim.
"At the time I got first-team All-American, Val had the No. 1 hitting percentage in the nation for the whole season and we expected her to get it," Cooke said. "I was always the type of player who didn't jump the highest or hit the hardest and there were far more talented girls out there.
"I felt my strength was being a steady player who for the most part didn't make too many mistakes. I prided myself on being that consistent player. So it was a shock, and it was to Chuck as well, that I got nominated and actually got the award. I never set out to be an All-American."
Whitehead-Robinson said that like Cooke's modesty, her intangibles were off the chart.
"When I came in, she was a couple years older than me, and she was definitely the best leader and the best captain I've ever worked with," Whitehead-Robinson said. "She worked so hard every day. We played the same position and she was a little bit shorter than me.
"But she was so strong and worked so hard, you would have never known she was four inches shorter than other people playing the same position. She took me under her wing and showed me what the program was about and what it took to be an All-American and win championships. She didn't let us get away with anything."
Cooke, who lives in Toronto, is married and expecting her first child, is likely the only player from those championship teams who is still actively competing.
After leaving MSU, she played three years of professional indoor volleyball in The Netherlands and was the head coach of the men's varsity program at McMaster University. She made the Canadian national beach volleyball team in '07, when she was the runner-up for rookie-of-the-year honors at the ripe old age of 33, but her bid to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics fell just short.
She played on the Corona Wide Open tour earlier this summer until her pregnancy reached its 12th week, and looks forward to competing in the Canadian Nationals next year.
"I'll likely play till the day I die," she said.
In the meantime, she'll reflect on the accomplishments that put her in the Hall of Fame.
"I was part of a really amazing time in the program's history," Cooke said. "When Chuck came in, he didn't have the top-10 recruits in the nation banging down his door. How do you take a program that had been in the basement in so long and turn it into a championship team in two seasons?
"And it was done mostly by relatively unknown and local athletes from Michigan and the Midwest. It wasn't until we got Jenna (Wrobel), the No. 1 recruit as a freshman (in '95), we started to get a little big bigger names. In my opinion, it's even more of an accomplishment because it was basically done with a team that just worked hard to find their potential as players and as a team."
Without Cooke, they may never have known where to look.