Daniel Cooke has tasted athletic success at Independence High School before but has come back to help return the Patriots to the heights he achieved as a player.
Cooke, a 2006 Independence graduate, was a member of the Patriots’ football teams that were in the midst of their remarkable 109-game winning streak, and he also played on the Independence baseball team that went 20-6 and advanced to the state championship final during his senior season.
Cooke recently was named the new Independence baseball coach, taking over for Matt Dykema, who moved to Alabama, and Cooke is looking to help the rising program ascend to the top of the Southwestern 4A conference.
“Independence has changed a lot from when I was here, but I think it has changed for the better,” Cooke said. “I am really excited to be back here. I have a lot of pride in the program, and when they called I was super excited that I could take over a program that I had come through and had so much success in.”
Cooke was not just a roster-filler on those successful Patriot teams; he was key cog who earned a scholarship in both sports to Gardner-Webb University. By the end of his college baseball career, Cooke ranked second on the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ career list for games played, and he’s among the top 10 in batting average, stolen bases and RBIs, among other categories. He also was a four-time All-Big South Conference safety with the football team and averaged more than 70 tackles per season.
After graduating from Gardner-Webb in 2009, Cooke worked as a public relations official for the Big South Conference. Then, in 2010, he worked as a Patriots assistant baseball coach under Dykema. After spending 2011 as the head JV baseball coach and a varsity football assistant at Monroe Parkwood, Cooke returned to Independence as a Career and Technical Education teacher.
Now, Cooke gets to take over the Independence baseball team that finished fourth in the always-tough Southwestern 4A conference and achieved its first winning season since Cooke’s 2006 quad. He is hoping that the 2013 season is reminiscent of his 2006 team, which Ron Coltrane took over as Patriots coach before the year and led to the state championship series in his first season.
“I want to follow in (Coltrane’s) footsteps,” Cooke said. “I am not rebuilding a program, so I have that advantage. They are a good program right now, but I definitely don’t want us to be happy with fourth place in the conference. Fourth is an accomplishment, but I want to keep building on that.
“I want to bring a competitive edge to this team. The reason that I was good at both sports was because I played baseball like it was football. I was aggressive. I played fast and tried to steal bases, and I want to instill that here.”
While the Patriots lost several seniors, including all-conference pick Cody Lekavich, Cooke is excited to have fellow all-league selections Nick Salisbury and ace pitcher James Hickes, along with senior pitcher Tim Miller and outfielder Joe Guns, all returning.
“Having those top two pitchers come back will help a lot, and Nick is a coach’s dream,” Cooke said. “I am ready to get out here and start working with some of the guys and maybe give some of them a new perspective or a fresh start.
“I hope that the kids can recognize that I was in their shoes not too long ago, and I came through the program and worked hard just like them.”
With the returning talent and a new energy infused into the program, Cooke said he believes the Patriots should be competing for the conference championship – status typically attained by Providence and Ardrey Kell in recent years.
“I think we should be in the mix every year,” Cooke said. “We are not going to be scared of playing anybody. I want to change the (team’s) competitive mind-set, and I don’t care if we are playing Grandma in checkers or Providence in baseball – I want to beat Grandma or whomever we are playing.
“Those teams tie it up just like we do. I don’t care if they think they have more talent than us, because we are going to outwork them every day in practice.”
While winning conference championships and changing the team’s level of confidence and competitiveness is the long-term goal, Cooke does not let his success as an athlete make him think he has nothing to learn as a first-time varsity head coach.
“I want the kids to come out here every day and try to get better by working and never wasting a day,” Cooke said. “I know a lot about baseball, but I am learning every day, too. I know each time I watch a game, I learn something that I didn’t know before.
“I want them to work hard, be aggressive and put the pressure on the other team, because that is how I played. I want to get (our players) to think the same way I did.”