Pitch perfect: Rebecca Cooke ‘finds a way’ to lead Bobcats

By Chris Brodeur February 27, 2023

Quinnipiac forward Rebecca Cooke led the NCAA in goals in 2022 with 22.

Standing a shade under 6 feet in mismatched cleats, Quinnipiac women’s soccer standout Rebecca Cooke is hard to misplace. Yet she possesses the uncanny ability to dart and drift and leave a defense in the dust, her legendary jaunts around the pitch covering as many as 12 miles in a 90-minute contest.

“Her strength is she’s always on the move,” said Bobcats coach Dave Clarke. “She’s very hard to [defend]. Half the time you don’t know where she’s running. She’ll pop up on the left. She’ll pop up on the right. She’ll run back 80 yards.”

In describing her hunger for greatness, Clarke invokes icons. Diana Taurasi. Sue Bird. Megan Rapinoe. The 20-year-old junior forward from Portmarnock, Ireland, is wired with the same ruthless instincts. Honored in 2022 as a United Soccer Coaches Third-Team All-American and the winner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s inaugural Golden Boot Award, Cooke has both the talent and the desire to land on a World Cup roster someday.

When she isn’t devouring true crime TV shows and chasing her other dream of working for the FBI, she’s helping the Bobcats restore law and order to the MAAC. The team captured the regular season and tournament titles this fall on the strength of Cooke’s 22 goals — tops in the nation and the most ever scored by a Quinnipiac player at the Division I level.

The Bobcats bowed out with a 4-1 loss to second-seeded Penn State after securing the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000. But with a core of key contributors due to return, expectations point to an encore in 2023. The team is a melting pot, and Cooke — one of 13 players born outside the U.S. — emerged not just as an offensive lynchpin but as a willing leader.

“When you have a player like that, you want to follow her lead,” said Cooke’s roommate, Courtney Chochol, the Canadian-born junior forward whose 13 assists ranked fourth in the NCAA. “When she’s on, the whole team is on.”

Added first-year assistant coach Shauny Alterisio: “Everyone looks up to her. She leads the forwards like I haven’t seen. She sends messages before every game, asking for their thoughts on the scouting report. She wants success for her teammates as much as she wants it for herself. That’s a leader.”

But back home, Cooke is still Bambi, the teenage nickname that suited her springy nature and propensity for spills — even as her performance made her a rising star on the Irish club circuit. “It stuck so hard that some people don’t even know my actual name at home,” Cooke explained amid the Bobcats’ banner season.

The oldest of four children born to Martin and Sharon Cooke, Rebecca’s competitive streak was apparent from the time she was a toddler, a ball constantly in hand or at her feet.

“Rebecca always had to win — at whatever sport she played,” recalled Sharon. “This girl’s birthday used to be a nightmare. You just wanted her to win something, so she’d be happy.”

With just two full seasons under her belt and two years of eligibility left owing to the pandemic, there’s much for Bambi and the Bobcats to be happy about. Cooke’s story is proof that an ocean-wide leap of faith can lift an entire program to new heights. But all the honors and accolades she’s collecting might be happening somewhere other than Hamden if her grandfather hadn’t coached a lad named Dave Clarke.

‘Is Bambi on tonight?’

Portmarnock is a coastal town of about 10,000 situated just north of the Irish capital of Dublin, which is home to a club soccer team called Belvedere F.C. Clarke, whose impressive international coaching resume includes a longstanding appointment with U.S. women’s soccer, suited up for the squad when it was managed by Martin Cooke, Rebecca’s granddad.

The connection was of some comfort to the Cookes during the college recruitment process. But COVID-19 protocols prevented Rebecca’s parents from accompanying her into the airport when it was time to fly to a faraway campus she’d only toured virtually.

Long before she started attracting attention from Power 5 schools across the pond, Rebecca was writing her own legend. A club soccer coach who observed her frequent trips to the turf gets an assist for bestowing the main character with a catchy moniker.

“She has gotten better with age, I think. Maybe more space-aware,” Sharon said. “But she would follow her shadow.”

Yes, Bambi took her bumps, but playing for boys teams coached by her grandfather until the age of 12 hardened her resolve. It didn’t take long for the nickname to nudge aside her given name. New coaches would submit formal requests to keep it casual.

“They’d come up to us and say, ‘look, I know it’s Rebecca. But apparently, if I call her Rebecca on the pitch, she’s not going to answer,’” Sharon said. “And I said, ‘no, you’re right. She won’t.’”

The Cookes visited on Parents Weekend, watching from the stands at the Quinnipiac Soccer Field as their daughter scored her ninth goal to salt away a 4-0 win over Niagara. Most games were live-streamed — “the highlight of everybody’s week,” as Martin Cooke put it. From Martin’s co-workers at the firehouse to Rebecca’s three siblings, her supporters were always asking, “is Bambi’s match on tonight?”

‘A goal scorer finds a way’

The Bobcats were dealt their only nonconference defeat of the regular season by in-state rival Yale on Aug. 28. The Bulldogs were mere seconds from a shutout when Cooke put the Bobcats on the board — one of five goals she tallied in the 80th minute or later.

It validated the Bulldogs’ scouting report on the opposing striker. It also resonated with assistant coach Tiffany Weimer, a former All-American at North Haven High who went on to become one of the NCAA’s all-time leading scorers at Penn State.

“We knew going into it she was their most dangerous player and hoped we could keep her from the score sheet, but a goal-scorer finds a way, even with her team down 4-0 in the last 20 seconds of the game,” Weimer wrote in an email to Quinnipiac Magazine. “She wanted to be on the ball and wanted the responsibility that the game often demands. That’s how you know someone is a goal scorer.”

Scoring a goal, Weimer said, is a “dopamine hit” for players of a certain caliber. No matter the stakes, prolific scorers are programmed with an almost primal urge to pad their own stats. It might seem greedy, but it drives team success. So why fight it?

Clarke and the Bobcats coaching staff would indeed urge Cooke to be more selfish throughout her breakout season, to chase that goal-scoring euphoria. And her grandfather would reinforce that message with feedback from afar.

“He’s always giving me an in-depth paragraph on how I played,” Rebecca said with a laugh.

The 2022 Bobcats proved particularly adept at stringing together crisp passes, a trait that saw them finish fourth in the NCAA with 2.81 assists per game in the regular season. But the prettiest display of team soccer is forgotten if you don’t have the ultimate finisher on your side, and that’s a role Cooke was born to play. From blistering headers to clever chip shots to clutch penalty kicks, she has every arrow in her quiver.

And just like Cristiano Ronaldo, the swaggering Portuguese striker whose signature celebration she likes to emulate, Cooke has a knack for delivering when it matters most. She registered five game-winning scores in 2022 to lead the MAAC and run her career tally to 10. Her point total (51) was the most in the nation and her four-goal, eight-point outburst against Siena on Sept. 28 set single-game conference records in both categories.

Still, Clarke has used words like “enigma” and “maverick” to describe his prized pupil. GPS devices capture the jaw-dropping data from Cooke’s in-game running habits, but matching the output of an English Premier League striker is hardly advisable. The coaches would like to see her mileage pared down to a more potent 5-6, but removing her from a game — even with a win assured — is never easy.

“We’ve all seen Rebecca throw her hands in the air, not being happy because she wants to stay out there,” Sharon said. “The thing is, Rebecca, even if she is tired, she just seems to find it from somewhere. It’s her determination, I think.”

Clarke likened the challenge of extracting the optimum performance from players of Cooke’s caliber to the task faced by Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey coach Rand Pecknold. Uber-talented players from around the globe pass through Hamden, and Pecknold and his staff are charged with molding them into NHL prospects while maximizing their contributions to a proven team concept.

Cooke’s coaches ask a lot because her game just keeps providing the answers.

“We could sit here and say, just be comfortable being the best player and the best athlete at Quinnipiac. But we’re doing her a disservice if that’s all we challenge her to be,” said Clarke, who will be entering his 24th season in the fall of 2023. “Even being the best player in the MAAC is not good enough. She’s got the ability to be better and that’s what the challenge is.”

The streak

Even with all the hardware she’s accruing — Cooke followed up her MAAC Rookie of the Year campaign in the spring of 2021 with consecutive First-Team All-MAAC selections — she’s still acclimating to American college soccer. It can be a more bruising brand of the game in which opponents put added emphasis on impeding her path to the net.

She gets man-marked, meaning the other team assigns a single player to shadow her every movement rather than defend a portion of the pitch. Or, more accurately, they try.

As an elite defender at her alma mater, Central Connecticut State, Alterisio was often on the other side of such assignments. She delighted in draining the spirit from an eager goal-scorer. But Cooke is a different breed.

“You can see it — they get defeated,” Alterisio said. “Their heads are out of the game. They don’t want to be there. She rises above it all.”

Weimer scored a Big Ten-record 91 goals, 27 of them game-winners, for the Nittany Lions before embarking on a long professional career. Defenses were constantly keying on her — to no avail.

“I have had coaches tell me now as an adult that their whole gameplan was figuring out how to stop me,” Weimer said. “I remember being man-marked so intensely that I would go to the sideline to get a drink and they would follow me, pretty much breathing on my neck.”

Cooke attracted similar attention amid the stretch from Aug. 25 to Oct. 12 that saw her register at least one goal in a MAAC-record 11 consecutive games, six games shy of the NCAA record Weimer shares with Portland’s Christine Sinclair.

The sequence that produced the final tally in her streak was pure poetry.

Cooke positioned herself perfectly to redirect a nifty side-footed feed from Chochol off a corner kick, using her left foot to deposit a vicious volley into the top-left corner of the net. It was a designed play run to perfection, but finishing with her weaker foot, with just a sliver of space between the ball and the nearest defender, represented a new trick.

Making the feat even more impressive was the fact that Cooke had just put a new pair of neon-orange cleats in play, and the left one wasn’t the best fit. Soon after, she started wearing a broken-in pink-and-white cleat on her left foot which, coupled with the orange boot on her right, gave her the appearance of a superstitious NFL placekicker for the balance of the Bobcats’ season.

A second home in Hamden

Cooke has traveled the world as a member of junior national teams and has experience training with the senior squad. The “Girls in Green” will make their World Cup debut in Australia and New Zealand in the summer of 2023, but the rigors of a Division I college soccer schedule essentially prohibit Cooke from completing the necessary training to earn a roster spot.

Right now, though, Cooke says she’s focused on being the best Bobcat she can be — on and off the pitch. She’s studying criminal justice and psychology and hopes to obtain U.S. citizenship so she can pursue a career in law enforcement.

Life in America has suited her well. She is a fan of the TV shows Homeland, Criminal Minds and all things espionage. A highlight of a family trip to New York City was spotting Claire Danes, who portrayed CIA officer Carrie Mathison on Homeland. Sightseeing in Washington, D.C., while staying with her uncle, Graham Cooke, whetted her appetite for protecting and serving.

But during the fall season, there’s no place she’d rather be than on the Bobcats’ picturesque home pitch, defending a conference crown with the teammates who have become a second family.

“My favorite thing about being here is the people I’ve met,” Cooke said this past fall. “There’s nobody on the team I wouldn’t say is a close friend. That’s a big part of our success this year.”

It’s not easy to watch your first-born flourish so far away from home, but the Cookes know Rebecca is in good hands.

“I think the friends and people she’s met at Quinnipiac are just second-to-none,” Martin said. “We’ve had a lot of people talk to us about the pathway for their children. We’re able to very easily and genuinely say to them, ‘we don’t have any issues or any qualms.’ Just make sure you pick the right college. Do your homework. Make sure you know where they’re going.”

Rebecca Cooke is going places. But she’s not done wearing blue and gold.

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