After the clock ticked down to zero, the scoreboard displaying a Duke victory, the Blue Devils headed into the locker room. One player set up her phone and played the team’s postgame song, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. Just like any other victory from that season, they screamed and jumped with excitement to celebrate as the iconic guitar riff played.
But this was not just any victory. It marked the first time in six years that the Blue Devils had beaten rival North Carolina. The cherry on top was that it occurred on Dorrance Field with a crowd of 5,301 packing the stands, the majority of which cheered for the lighter shade of blue.
“You can’t even hear yourself think,” Michelle Cooper recalled of the liveliness in the locker room.
Cooper, just 18 years old and hardly a month into her freshman year at Duke at the time, assisted the game’s sole goal in the second half. But it was hardly the first time that season that the young forward contributed to her team. Until the contest against North Carolina, Cooper had scored in all but one of Duke’s six games.
Before the Blue Devils left the locker room that night, they posed for a photo, their feelings and excitement transcending the Polaroid picture to real life. It captured a group of determined young women taking the nation by storm.
Cooper was undeniably the star leading the charge. Her rookie campaign was one of the best Duke has ever seen.
Through the rest of her freshman season, Cooper only got better. She started all 18 games in which she played and finished the season with 29 points, eight ahead of Duke’s second-highest scorer, Tess Boade.
Now entering the NCAA tournament in her sophomore season, Cooper has only continued to shine for Duke and is consistently named among the nation’s top players.
“Her talent is unlimited,” head coach Robbie Church told The Chronicle. “... She’s just worked so hard. Both in possession, out of possession. She has a stronger mentality than a lot of people have. And she wants to be great. She wants to succeed. I think she’s going to be somebody who’s going to continue to grow and get better and better as they go forward.”
‘Grow with whoever I play with’
Cooper, a native of Clarkston, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, got her start with soccer when her mother signed her up for a team in the American Youth Soccer Organization.
“She wanted me to run my energy off,” Cooper said, chuckling.
Cooper said that she fell in love with the sport because she always had friends on her team. That chemistry was integral to her game.
“I just continued to grow with whoever I play with, whatever team I’m on. I still talk to girls that I played with when I was U-8. And they actually still come to some of my games from Michigan,” Cooper said.
As the young player grew and her coach noticed how good she was, Cooper decided to invest in a travel team. She began competing with more skilled players and facing tougher competition at tournaments.
Cooper’s younger sister Lexie began playing soccer when she was 10, following in the footsteps of her sister after Cooper’s coach convinced her to join the club.
“She’s my best friend,” Cooper said. “I have done everything with her. Going to training together on the field. I help her with classwork. Whatever it is.”
In 2016, Cooper joined the U.S. National Team pool and began receiving opportunities to travel globally. She donned the red, white and blue in Croatia, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, England, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, France and Spain. And all of the trips, which ranged from weeks to a month or longer, were experiences that made an impact on her life and would not have been possible without soccer.
When Cooper thinks of Croatia—her favorite trip with the national team—she remembers a small town on the water. The team explored the village and tried the local cuisine. She recalled it as a time “to ourselves to really take in the culture because a lot of the time, we’re just on the field.”
The experience of traveling out of the country without her family forced Cooper to grow up fast, she said. But the growth and maturity that comes with growing up fast allowed her to become independent at a younger age.
Soon after, she began receiving attention from college coaches during her freshman year of high school. Due to the NCAA commitment rules in 2017, she was allowed to visit schools in person.
When Cooper spoke to Church for the first time in person, his first impression of her was her maturity.
“She knew what she wanted and liked. She wanted a good education,” Church said.“... She also wanted a good soccer program. And she wanted a place that she could thrive and grow and get better and be challenged, so I thought she was a very unique young lady.”
Cooper committed the day after her visit. Due to recruitment restrictions, she didn’t get to know any of her older future Duke teammates before getting to campus her freshman year, but she would frequently visit Durham to watch her future team.
‘We’re always laughing’
The emerging star wanted to make sure that she was the best that she could be at the sport, and after her commitment year, she sought to do what Duke players did. While training during her sophomore year with the Michigan Hawks, a travel team and part of the Elite Clubs National League, she also worked with Aaron Byrd, the founder of Next Level Training, where players from Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Florida State train during the summer.
Cooper soon realized that the next step for her career was to be at a place where she would be on the field more consistently and with a higher level of intensity. She and her sister transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where they not only grew to be college-level players but also met international athletes. At IMG, Cooper met her future roommate, Dieynaba “JJ” Ndaw, a soccer player from Dakar, Senegal.
Ndaw, who attended IMG beginning in eighth grade, played for the U16 and U19 Girls Premier teams. Though Cooper played for the U15 Girls Elite team, the two practiced together and naturally became tight, knowing that they would be playing together in Durham soon.
Since the two arrived at Duke, they have become closer. They set aside time to watch TV and do face masks together, and during the summer, Ndaw stayed with Cooper in Michigan to train with her and work at soccer camps. They were always together, watching each other grow up.
“It’s always jokes, honestly. Our personalities do mesh really well. We’re always laughing and just making sure both of us are good, and we check up on each other all the time,” Ndaw said about their relationship.
‘One of the first people I look for’
Following a stellar 2021 season, Cooper was named ACC Freshman of the Year and TopDrawerSoccer National Freshman of the Year. Her 13 goals were the most by a freshman in program history, and she kept that momentum going in international play.
The following spring, she competed at the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She scored eight goals in the tournament, earning the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards as the top scorer and best player in the competition. Cooper then traveled to Aubagne, France to compete with the U-20 Women’s Youth National Team for the Sud Ladies Cup before returning to Duke for summer training camp.
Team USA, helped by Cooper and Duke freshman Carina Lageyre, beat France 3-1 and Mexico 3-0. The final game finished with the U.S. winning against the Netherlands in penalty kicks, allowing the team to take away its second title. Cooper was one of two players to score in regulation to keep the Americans alive.
When Cooper and Lageyre arrived at Duke, practice was already a month underway. For Lageyre, being with Cooper in France meant that she got to know what the team would be like. Though Lageyre was injured, she learned a lot from Cooper from the sidelines and feels as if she has grown as a player through watching her play.
“She’s one of the first people I look for on the field,” Lageyre told The Chronicle. “I always try to be a good support underneath. And I know she can do a lot of things with the ball. I can play her any type of pass. She can control it and go score.”
Any of Cooper’s teammates would likely agree with that sentiment. Her curls are often wrapped into two braids when she plays, and her trademark—if not her talent—is her undeniably supportive personality. When she is on the field, she is looking ahead to the next play if the previous one falls. When she is on the sidelines, she is the loudest person on the bench.
‘Stay focused on positive things’
Entering the 2022 NCAA tournament, Cooper has 12 goals and nine assists to her name.
She has received honors such as National Player of the Week, United States Soccer Coaches Division I player of the week and ACC Player of the Week throughout her sophomore season. She began the year ranked as the No. 16 player in the nation by TopDrawerSoccer, and by the end of the regular season, she was ranked seventh.
“Of course, it’s an outside pressure. And it makes me think about it often and not in a negative way, but in a ‘you have standards to reach [way],’” Cooper said. “I think I’m the biggest critic, I will be very, very hard on myself. And I try not to let outside factors bother me. So trying to stay focused on positive things all the time, regardless of any accolade.”
After defeating Virginia 2-1 on the road to advance, the Blue Devils fell to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals. The match was scoreless as it went to penalties.
Between each penalty kick Duke made, the Blue Devils embraced and kept each other’s energy up, led vocally by Cooper, who was named ACC Offensive Player of the Year the day before. But in the end, the team failed to advance, as North Carolina converted one more penalty than Duke. Players fell to the ground, and their excitement dissipated. The Blue Devils were no longer competing for the conference championship.
Despite the loss, Cooper demonstrated her skill at WakeMed Soccer Park, with Church using her as the sole player up top for long stretches in the second half.
“Michelle Cooper is deservedly the ACC Player of the Year, I mean, deservedly. I voted for her, and everyone else I’m sure did as well,” said North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance after the game.
Now, Duke has a national championship to compete for, beginning with Saturday's home matchup against Radford. Like all the teams before them, the Blue Devils want nothing more than to win the NCAA tournament, Cooper included.
“I want to help the team, and I want to win a national championship,” Cooper said. “Oh my gosh, that would be a dream come true.”
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.