Mi'Kola Cooper has a lot of things in her favor, starting with playing for one of the two premier tennis programs in SCISA girls high school tennis.
"She's very coachable, has a competitive spirit … and she's an athlete," said veteran Porter-Gaud coach Tom Higgins about his star player.
With Cooper leading the way from the No. 1 position, Porter- Gaud should be favored to oppose two-time defending state champion Ashley Hall in the SCISA Class AAA state title match for the second straight season. The two teams already have met once this season, with Porter-Gaud prevailing, 5-1. They will meet at least once more (Oct. 12) and, barring an upset, twice more.
Although the state tournament won't be played until the week of Oct. 18, Porter-Gaud and Ashley Hall already have demonstrated their dominance in SCISA tennis against the other teams from Region III as well as from Columbia, with Porter-Gaud posting a 9-0 win over Heathwood Hall, and Ashley Hall scoring an 8-1 win over Hammond School.
Cooper has blossomed as a junior into one of the leading contenders for Lowcountry player of the year honors. After making All-Lowcountry as a sophomore, she is 8-0 this season. She is on a three-match winning streak against talented Ashley Hall No. 1 Patricia Kirkland, but two of the meetings have gone to three sets.
The Cyclones' only loss this season was to six-time SCHSL Class AAAA state champion Wando, even though Cooper won the No. 1 matchup against Wando star Clair Larkin.
"It feels really good (to be unbeaten)," Cooper said. "It's exciting to be able to play such good players (Kirkland, Larkin and Colleton Prep ace Sarah McDonald). All of them have different strengths, but Patricia probably is the toughest player for me."
Cooper came into her own late last season and has continued to improve. "I took time off from junior tournaments and worked hard this summer, practicing five to six hours a day. I lost maybe 10 or 15 pounds," the 5-7 player said.
"I did a lot of running in preseason with a group from Porter-Gaud. Coach (Brian) Burke would run us all the way from Porter-Gaud to Farmfield … three miles."
Higgins, the former tennis coach at Eastern Kentucky University, has been impressed by Cooper's improvement and focus on the game.
"Mi'Kola conditions twice as much as anyone else," he said. "She is an athlete. She could play anything for us … run track, play basketball. She's a pleasure to coach."
Always a hard hitter, Cooper has concentrated on improving her consistency to go with a strong serve.
"Mi'Kola started to develop consistency at the end of last season," Higgins said. "She's a (NCAA) Division I prospect."
Cooper played guard/forward for the varsity basketball team last season, but she isn't sure if she will play any other sports this school year. She plans to focus solely on tennis.
"I want to play pro tennis. If I don't, I'll go to college," said Cooper, whose sister Mikhala is a freshman at Porter-Gaud and is also a member of the tennis team.
College offers should start coming before her senior year, especially if she continues to improve the way she has in the last year.
A longtime member of the inner-city Courting Kids program, Cooper was one of the speakers at the recent news conference that announced Family Circle Cup's $50,000 partnership with Courting Kids. That came on the heels of her award-winning Arthur Ashe Essay entry and trip to the U.S. Open. Her tennis hero, naturally, is Arthur Ashe.
"The New York trip was a great opportunity for me," she said. "I met Arthur Ashe's daughter, and I got to see a lot of matches. I was able to see how everything operates."
Reach James Beck at email@example.com. See his columns on pro tennis at ubitennis.com/english.