VALPARAISO — From a young age, Kara Cooper always stood out in a crowd, back row in the middle of school and team photos, to be exact.
"I always remember being tall in elementary school, especially middle school," the La Porte grad and Valparaiso University freshman said.
That height didn't translate into success on the basketball court, but it has on the volleyball court, where the 6-foot-3 Cooper enjoyed a successful four years as a Slicer and has made an immediate impact with the Crusaders.
"I played basketball sixth and seventh grade, I hated it," Cooper said before Tuesday's volleyball practice. "I was so bad. I could not get it in the hoop ever."
While she didn't have much luck at putting a ball in a net, Cooper has excelled at putting the ball over the net and keeping opponents from doing the same. A prolific blocker in high school, her front-line defense has already carried over to the collegiate level, where her 35 blocks leads the Crusaders.
"I think I'm exceeding my expectations definitely," Cooper said. "I've been doing pretty well blocking, which has always been my strongest thing. I think I just clicked with girls a lot faster than I thought. The speed of the game, that was tricky at first, blocking especially, but I think I picked up on that quicker than I thought. Coach (Carin) Avery and (assistant) Nick (Polite) work with us a lot on blocking. All the middles help each other at practice and during the games. I'm definitely still learning. I think I still have a lot of room to improve, but I've made a lot of progress since I've been here."
Cooper has 51 kills to go along with her net defense and her hitting percentage of .174 is third among VU regulars.
"When we recruited her, we thought it might take her a little while longer to get acclimated to our system," Avery said. "Offensively was where we knew she could struggle coming in. There are things obviously we saw that we wanted to work on, but she just came in and found herself in the top two of our middle blockers right from the start. Her position in particular is one of the hardest, setting and middle blocking. Any freshmen, there are growing pains, and that will continue. She's another great kid. She works very hard. She wants to get better. She's a coach's dream as a player. You couldn't ask for anything more."
The former Slicer is quick to credit LP coach Cassie Holmquest for shaping her game to where she could transition so smoothly to college.
"She was always on me about blocking," Cooper said. "She helped me become a better blocker, a better overall player. She always made us play fast. She's very intense. She played Division I at Northern Illinois, so she helped me a lot with recruiting."
Coincidentally, Cooper ultimately chose VU over Northern Illinois, and she's happy with how it's working out.
"I love it. I love all the girls and coach Avery," she said. "I always had Valpo in the back of my mind even before I was even recruited. It was close to home. That was a big thing for my family and friends to come. They offered me and I knew right away what I wanted to do. I knew of Brittney (Anderson). I knew Bella (Ravotto). I played against her in club a few times. She's a freshman, so we clicked right away. All the freshmen are in the same dorm. We're on the same floor. We're all super close."
Sometimes, the adjustment to college for an athlete is more difficult on the academic side, but Cooper's found her groove as a student as well.
"I like college classes a lot better. I like having a good break between classes. Only having like two classes a day is really nice," she said, "We've been gone three weekends already, so I've missed those Fridays, but all the professors are really understanding. It's harder being so independent, but all the freshmen all go to study table together. When we're on the bus, we all do homework."
Holmquest isn't surprised to see her former star taking the next step.
"Kara is one of the hardest workers I've coached, so I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I'm not." Holmquest said. "She put in a lot of work this summer before reporting. She came to most of our open gyms and worked out with the girls. She is so coachable and soaks up any and all feedback you give her. She wants to be the best she can be. She also has a physical presence with her height, and she takes a ton of pride in her blocking. I love seeing that she is still doing her thing defensively at the net. She is a great kid, and she is being rewarded for her dedication. It's exciting to see. I am so proud of her."
Valparaiso stands 4-6 heading into South Dakota State's Jackrabbit Invitational Friday and Saturday with Missouri Valley Conference play beginning Sept. 27.
"We definitely have a lot to work on," Cooper said. "We're going to keep getting better every day. We're all getting closer. Hopefully we have a good weekend, some good weeks of practice to get us ready for conference.
Avery is excited to see how Cooper builds on the strong start to her collegiate career.
"Freshmen in general, we hit the ground running in the fall, so we can't spend a lot of time correcting things. We just don't have the time," Avery said. "It'll be interesting to see her progression when we have the chance to really work with her more one on one. A lot of credit to her. It's going to be great to see her growth over the years."