Cooper Strong

When I was a little girl, I can remember my dad saying to me, my brother, and my sister: “Your papaw was a good man, and I’ve tried my best to stick to my morals. Now, it’s your turn. You all are the last chance at preserving our legacy. Make our name mean something in this little town.” From an early age my brother, my sister, and I wore the Cooper name like a uniform.

My kindergarten school photo.

I was born in 1971, and raised in Tick Ridge in Ray, Ohio. Tick Ridge is a tiny plot of land in Appalachia. The closest amenities are a few clusters of housing, a church, and a few commercial buildings. While the people of Tick Ridge are few, they are mighty. It’s home to country kids who are used to a hard day’s work and supporting their family. Isolated from bigger towns, we thought everyone lived like we did. We didn’t know we were poor, because well, everyone was. We cared more about being the fastest and strongest more than we cared about what owned. I only had one pair of shoes until I started playing sports, and they were a pair of brown saddle oxfords. I wore them to school, to church, and to play. Life was less about things, and more about what we could do.

Me (in front with the brown dress shoes) during my elementary school’s field day races.

As my interests in sports grew, my father realized that my dress shoes weren’t going to cut it. After some penny-pinching, he brought home two pairs of tennis shoes, one for my sister, and one for me. We giggled as we walked around the house in our matching lavender Nikes, with a terry cloth heel and toe, and dark purple swooshes on either side. The same year I started playing sports was the year “we went to town,” so to speak. We had to travel 13 miles to town to play on the little league basketball teams. My parents were so supportive of us — my mother even coached many of our teams in grades school including basketball, softball, and football. We were undefeated in every sport.

Tick Ridge didn’t have a school building for any of the upper grades, so we had to enroll at the public school in Jackson, Ohio. To anyone else, Jackson is just another small town, but to us, we saw it as uncharted territory, flooded with new faces. I had gone to school with the same 25 kids my whole life until that point. The first days of seventh grade were so overwhelming, but eventually, my siblings and I settled in. At the beginning of that year, we played volleyball in gym class. I must have impressed my teacher, because he called me over to ask why I wasn’t on the school’s team. I promptly explained that I loved playing sports, but I transferred in too late to join a team. Turns out, my teacher was the volleyball coach, and made a spot for me. I didn’t know it then, but my life would never be the same.

I had worked tirelessly to keep my grades up and work my hardest on the volleyball team, so I would get noticed. I won many awards while playing in high school including player of the year in every sport I played. I wanted the Cooper name to appear in the headlines of the local newspaper. The success I had with volleyball made me think I could make it outside my community. Tick Ridge was my home, but my dreams had grown bigger than the property lines. I had my mind set on attending The Air Force Academy to become a pilot. I knew I could try out for the Olympic Volleyball team through them, and I wanted to see how far I could go.

To be able to apply to the Air Force academy, you must get nominated by your state representative. Only one boy and one girl are picked in each Congressional district per state. I was one of them. I knew going to the academy, I would have been in a little fish in a huge pond, but I was up for the challenge.

During my last year of high school, months after my acceptance, my parents began having health issues and needed surgery. My brother was going to be getting married and leaving soon, and I didn’t feel like I could leave at a such a crucial, chaotic time. I hadn’t told a soul I was even thinking about giving up my spot in the AFA, but one day after school, I picked up the telephone and called the academy to apologize and decline their offer. Everyone was shocked. I had no college lined up and wasn’t sure what I would do after high school. Local colleges scrambled to contact me once they found out that the Cooper girl turned down her scholarship.

A few days later, I was called to the principal’s office. I was a good student, with an immaculate record, so I thought I was getting some sort of certificate. Turns out, I had a lunch date with the head volleyball coach from the University of Rio Grande. Rio Grande was a very small university, only about 35 minutes away, so the coach suggested that I could still stay at home and go there. She asked me what it would take to get me to come play volleyball for them. With an honest face I said, “ma’am, it would take a full ride because my parents don’t have the money.”

She looked at me and said, “done.”

She wasn’t bluffing. I didn’t have to pay for so much as a pencil. Though it wasn’t the academy, I still got to play volleyball, and while the chance was slim, I could still work toward my Olympic dreams. All I needed to do was to obtain an All-American title, though this is hefty feat for an athlete at such a small school. But I was determined. You could even say that I double-majored in special education and in volleyball, as I treated both like a degree.

Me (left) with a friend, 1991.

I was rookie of the year my freshman year and honorable mention All-American by the time I was a junior. My senior year, I did obtain the All-American title, which gave me an invite to try out for the US Olympic volleyball team. I couldn’t believe it! I was finally getting a chance to pursue my dream.

Most colleges fall under the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) umbrella that represents about 1200 schools, but the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes) where Rio Grande fell under only represents about 300 schools. I was the only NAIA athlete trying out.

During tryouts, I was often overlooked because at 5’11”, I was shorter than a lot of the other girls, and because I wasn’t wearing any gear with the branding of a well-known college. I had worked hard to get to these tryouts, and I was going to give it my all because I knew I deserved to be there.

I did well at these tryouts, but many of my opponents did well, too. Though I made it far, I was not chosen to be a part of the 1996 Olympic volleyball team. It was disappointing, but I was still thankful for the opportunity. I had done it. I tried out for the Olympics. The fact alone made me feel fulfilled. The story of me trying out for the Olympics has helped me get every job ever since then.

I finished my degree and in 1996, I married my college boyfriend, but I was itching to get back to Tick Ridge. I was getting homesick for a simple life with the people I loved most. Because my husband worked a job hours away from my home, I decided to move to with him — with one condition: get me back home within seven years.

Living in this new town with my husband, I sought opportunity to get back on the court, but it was more difficult than I thought it would be. I had applied to a coaching position for a nearby high school, but it was given to a girl with almost no experience — while I breathed the sport.

Hearing what had happened, a neighboring high school called to offer me a head coaching job at their school. I also applied for a special education teacher job there, though there wasn’t an opening. Just as we were having this chat, one of their other special education teachers handed in his resignation. He told me the news, and I was offered a special education teaching job and the varsity coaching job all in the same day. It was perfect. My team was full of hard-working farm kids, so I knew I’d hit a gold mine of talent because I grew up just like them. Their work-ethic was stronger than an average kid. The team got better each season. We went from winning seven games the first season, to being in the final four for the state championship.

It was nearing the seven-year mark that my husband promised we’d return to Tick Ridge, so I went back home to visit and attended an athletic event at my old high school. I was welcomed back with open arms and was surprised when they offered me a chance to interview for the special education and a volleyball coaching jobs at the school that jump-started my passion. I was overjoyed to be given such a great opportunity. I taught at the high school for three years until another opportunity fell into my lap.

The University of Rio Grande, the college that started my path to adulthood, offered me the head coaching job. It was a dream come true. I knew upon graduation that I wanted to end up back there someday, and that moment had finally come.

Coaching Rio Grande Women’s Volleyball.

I coached the girls on my team with the strict toughness that I knew would bring results. I wanted to make sure the girls respected my methods, even if they didn’t understand my motives. All I wanted was a winning team Especially at the beginning, I pushed my team to their limits, some rose to the challenge, and some fell.

In my eighth season of collegiate coaching, my niece, Emileigh Cooper, came to Rio Grande for her graduate program and became my assistant coach. She was the perfect addition to our team. Because she was raised a Cooper, she carried such intense tenacity that inspired my team, and set our standard. When I had to make a tough call, Emileigh had my back. I watched my niece lead with grace and power. Us Cooper girls were a hard-nosed duo.

Emileigh Jo Cooper, my assistant volleyball coach and niece.

When Emileigh was 22, in her second year of grad school, she was in a car accident. Without any reason or warning, my niece passed away. It shook me to my core. The team and my family were all devastated. Losing her was like using my own daughter because in our family, our siblings’ kids were raised like they were ours, too. My family wanted Emileigh’s legacy to continue its selfless impact, and so, my family and I started the hashtag: #CooperStrong. In her honor, our friends and family have raised funding through several years of volleyball tournaments and 5k runs. All the proceeds from the CooperStrong volleyball tournament go to a Rio Grande player or alumni in need, and all money from the 5k goes to the local high school girl’s athletic association. I know it’s something Emileigh would be proud of.

People in our community saw how strong my family became despite the terrible loss, banding together to help make a difference from her death. We began to see #CooperStrong all over the town and all over social media. The support was comforting in the face of grief.

At the #CooperStrong 5k.

Emileigh’s death changed me. Before she died, I would go crazy if one of my players were a couple minutes late to practice. Today, I don’t get as mad. I’m just happy that they’re alive and okay. I grew closer to God and placed all my burdens on His shoulders. I just remember being a little girl, staring into my father’s eyes as he told us to uphold the Cooper name. Though I did my part for the family name, Emileigh is the reason people will never forget the strength and tenacity of the Coopers of Tick Ridge.

This is the story of Billina Donaldson

Billina continues to live near Tick Ridge where she teaches special education at Jackson High School and head coaches the volleyball team at The University of Rio Grande. Despite coming from a small community, Billina remained proud of her humble background and pursued her dreams. When she isn’t coaching or teaching, Billina can be found leading her church’s mission group. She also finds joy in family game night (a Cooper tradition) and supporting her three children as they grow up to follow in her footsteps and pursue athletics. Billina holds the sixth all-time NAIA record for career kills/points (2,512), is a two-time All-American, and the 77thmember of the Rio Grande Athletic Hall of Fame. She is considered the best volleyball player in school history.

Billina (sitting) and family, 2017.
| Writers: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker | Editors: Our Life Logs Team |

Life Log #90

This story first touched our hearts on April 26, 2018.




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Our Life Logs

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We are a global initiative that believes in common human experiences that connect all of us. We collect and share true life stories of people from everywhere

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