A strong arm, a quick bat, a sprinkle of power and a whole lot of determination. For flavor, a little bit of dirt and a couple strips of eye black.
What he has managed to cook up is arguably the best softball player in Western Reserve High School history, and she just so happens to be his daughter, Emmalee Cooke.
Emmalee is a senior catcher for the Lady Roughriders who owns or has tied with 12 individual school softball records. Her very own “Cooke Book” has her name etched as the owner of just about every major statistical category ranging from runs and hits in a season to batting average and slugging percentage.
Starting out in youth league baseball as a 4-year old, Emmalee switch focus to softball when she was nine. Her love for the game only grew as she began playing travel league softball for Explosive Fast Pitch six years ago.
“It’s my thing,” Emmlee said about her favorite sport. “It is a big part of my life. When people hear my name, I hope they think of me as a softball girl.”
Softball really is her thing. Her individual season records include 36 runs in a season in which she is sure to add to this season. She had 46 hits in 2015, 13 of those being doubles, both records. Her .590 batting average in 2015 is a season best in the history of the program. That same year, she had a 20-game hit streak. She could break that this season as she owns an 18-game hitting streak currently.
Yeah, softball is most definitely her thing. But she does even more away from the plate with a bat in her hands.
“It has changed my life by learning how to be a team player,” Emmalee said. “Learning how to lead other people by setting a good example has been the biggest lesson I have learned.”
Emmalee took up catching when she was 10, just a year into softball. Normally a shortstop or third baseman, Emmalee was pointed to and told to get behind the plate. With a little convincing and a lot of hesitation, Emmalee got her first taste of what it was like to be a softball catcher. Sporting oversized gear and a helmet that was entirely too big, She went on to have a productive game behind the plate and took to it the way many knew she would.
“I think my experience in softball helped me make the transition to catching,” Emmalee said. “It is the place where I can do my own thing. It comes from having confidence in what you do. I hated it at first, but I was catching balls and I did pretty well. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t want to admit that I liked it.”
Since then, Emmalee has gone on to post a .974 fielding percentage for her career, basically unheard of for a catcher. She has only committed 14 errors in her four seasons behind the dish for the Roughriders. And behind every record and every impressive performance has been her dad.
“I know he is my dad, but when we are on the field he is my coach,” Emmalee said. “After 14 years, I have gotten used to it.”
A Father’s Love
Bob took over a softball program with not much history. The Lady Roughriders have never won a Firelands Conference championship. Starting in a sport he knew well, Bob dove head first into softball and promised his daughter he would do everything in his power to provide her with every opportunity she wanted.
“Early on in little league, there are not many people willing to spend the time to be a coach,” Bob said. “So I just kind of jumped in and took the duties head on. The more I got into it, the more I liked it. We have always had a special relationship. When we are on the field, she is just another player for me. It has worked very well.”
From then on, Emmalee had her very own 24-hour a day, 7-day a week coach and the basement at their home became a kitchen for cooking up the perfect ballplayer.
At times when other families were settling in and watching TV to wrap up the night after dinner, Emmalee and her father retreated to the basement to work on the fundamentals of catching. Emmalee would put on her catcher’s mask and Bob would toss softballs at her face to help her react to each bounce and learn how to block.
They would work on hand-eye coordination, blocking technique, throwing motions and game-type situations. What came out of the kitchen is one of the best catchers in the area.
“To groom a catcher was an absolute joy,” Bob said. “It was not a tough job with her. I think just teaching her to have the confidence to be the leader on the field was more difficult than to teach her the fundamentals of the position. It has been a ton of fun. I have done a ton of research online and talking with other coaches and clinic organizers. I am a real researcher and I will find all of the different techniques that will work to make her successful. It is a great hobby to have.”
Bob’s love for the sport quickly translated to Emmalee. The love for the sport can be seen on her uniform after every game. Normally walking off of the field with the dirtiest pants and possibly a rip or two from sliding around the bases, Emmalee admits she cannot just put her finger on one thing she loves about the sport.
“It is a lot of different things,” Emmalee said. “It is an individual sport played in a team setting. There is one batter up at a time, but you still need an entire team playing together to win ballgames.”
On the Offense
When Emmalee does step up to the plate, everyone takes notice. She doesn’t own a career .516 batting average for nothing. She doesn’t have 141 career hits by accident. She didn’t drive in 44 RBI in her four years as the leadoff batter by mistake and she doesn’t have six career home runs by bunting.
But what she does do is approach every at-bat with her father’s three phases to hitting in mind. Phase 1 starts in the dugout where she studies the pitcher and the opposing defense. She asks herself, “What is the pitcher doing? What is the weather doing? Where is the defense set up?” Then, in Phase 2, she steps to the on-deck circle and takes a few violent swings of the bat, stretches out and times pitches up. Finally, in Phase 3, she steps to the dish with a clear mind and does what she knows best, hit the softball.
“I don’t step up to the plate with breaking a record in my mind,” Emmalee said. “I just go up with confidence and knowing that I can hit the ball and I can get on base. I want to do it for my team and for us to be successful. When I do get these records, I just think of it as me doing my job for my team and doing what they need me to do.”
She doesn’t step to the plate thinking home run either, but she found herself hitting homers in back-to-back-to-back games earlier in the season. They were her only three homers of the season and the record stands at five. She isn’t really thinking about that record at all.
“I am not so much of a power hitter,” Emmalee said. “It is a surprise to me every time I hit a home run. I connect with the ball and I know it feels good, but the first home run I hit, I didn’t even know it went over. I just stopped at second base and I saw the umpire giving the home run signal. It comes as a shock because I never step to the plate thinking home run.”
Some of Emmalee’s accomplishments and records include: Most runs in a season (36 and counting), Most hits in a season (46 in 2015), Most doubles in a season (13 in 2015), Most triples in a season (nine in 2016), Batting average in a season (.590 in 2015), Slugging percentage for a season (.962 in 2015), On base percentage (.662 and counting), Longest hitting streak (20 games in 2015), Hit by a pitch in a season (7 in 2015) and most hits in a game (four in 2015, 16 and 17).
She is a four-time offensive player of the year, four-time captain, two-time Rider award recipient, second team All-District in 2015, first team All-District in 2016, two-time second team All-Firelands Conference in 2014 and 15, first team All-FC in 2016, Honorable Mention All-Ohio in 2016, four-time All-Academic and four-time All-Firelands Conference All-Academic player during her time at Western Reserve.
But of all of the awards, stats, records and whatever else can be connected to her name, she only has one legacy she would like to leave.
“I just hope my love for the game of softball lives on through the younger players coming up through the program,” Emmalee said. “Every day, they ask me more and more questions about the game and I love being a senior captain on this team for that reason. They trust me and they want to learn more about this game. I hope they take from me the love I have for this game.”