Updated Thu, Feb 6, 2014 12:18 pm
Revitalizing a basketball program takes more than a group of skilled athletes. Rather, it takes a winning mindset and a common desire to rise to the top.
After a dismal 2012-13 season, the Ohio women’s basketball program needed a solution and it needed it quickly. Recruiters searched far and wide to draw program-changing talent to Athens.
Fortunately for Ohio, a package deal was waiting for them an hour away in Southeast Columbus.
Then Ohio coach Semeka Randall discovered two rising basketball prospects from Reynoldsburg High School. Speedy 5-foot-7 point guard Yamonie Jenkins and powerful 6-foot-1 forward Destini Cooper provided the exterior and interior presence needed to create a powerhouse at any level.
Long before college basketball coaches made their pitches in those two Reynoldsburg living rooms, Jenkins and Cooper first suited up on the same American Youth Basketball Tour squad in the fifth grade. Coached by Jenkins’ father, the two began two develop on-court chemistry from an early age. Cooper eventually joined Jenkins’ AAU squad in eighth grade.
Fast-forward to the 2009-10 school year and the dynamic duo came into a Reynoldsburg women’s basketball program that had never seen deep playoff success. Both Jenkins and Cooper proved themselves from the get-go, bypassing junior varsity and earning starting roles on the varsity squad.
“When we came in our freshman year, we were told that we had to play a bigger role than freshmen usually do,” Jenkins said.
Like any freshmen, Jenkins and Cooper made their fair share of mistakes during practices and games. Both admitted that they needed to rely on one another to adjust to the high school game.
“It was overwhelming at first because, ‘Wow, we have to do so much,’” Jenkins said.
Fortunately for Reynoldsburg, Cooper and Jenkins, along with other teammates are now playing at colleges such as Xavier, Butler, Cleveland State and Kent State, the team found its groove quickly. By the time Cooper and Jenkins finished their careers at Reynoldsburg, the Lady Raiders had been legitimate state title contenders for four consecutive years, including the school’s first trip to the state final four during their freshman season.
Jenkins proclaimed that those four Reynoldsburg squads turned the program around and aided future Lady Raider teams.
“There are probably a couple girls there who wouldn't have come if we didn't do what we did there,” Jenkins said.
With their spot among the great Reynoldsburg athletes secured, Jenkins and Cooper came to a crossroads. The choice: Continue their conjoined success or venture into uncharted territory.
Cooper said that going to the same school as Jenkins was not necessary, but it would have been an added bonus. Many of the same programs recruited both Jenkins and Cooper, making it more likely that the two would don the same college colors.
“You could say that we were a package deal, but we didn’t say that we were a package deal,” Cooper said. “Anywhere we went, we would’ve probably gone to the same school.”
Both families had been close for many years and had met on numerous occasions to discuss the young athletes’ college choice. Eventually, Cooper signed with Ohio. Jenkins wanted to stay close to her childhood companion and followed suit, joining what would turn out to be Semeka Randall’s final recruiting class.
Aside from liking the current players and school, Jenkins and Cooper wanted to be a part of the Ohio rebuilding process right away, much like how they spurred the rebuilding process at Reynoldsburg.
“We wanted to be ‘that’ class that changed OU [women’s basketball],” Jenkins said.
Jenkins noted that the experience of starting all four years in high school prepared she and her roommate for the rigors of being contributors from the get-go. That same experience motivates them to help the team, despite their lack of collegiate experience.
“I’m excited because it was fun doing it at Reynoldsburg,” Cooper said. “There are bigger things going on in college.”
Assistant coach Tavares Jackson applauded Jenkins and Cooper for their work ethics and for bringing the “winning mentality” to Athens.
“They came from a winning background, so that helps transitioning into freshman year playing-wise,” Jackson said. “You try to surround yourself with people with that mentality.”
Before Cooper and Jenkins joined the rebuilding process and before they could register their first points, they still had to adjust to college just like every other freshman. Their college experience began during the summer of 2013 with off-season workouts.
Cooper, who admitted that she tends to be shy, initially found comfort in having Jenkins and fellow freshman Quiera Lampkins around. Cooper and Jenkins were AAU teammates with Lampkins and often faced off with her Gahanna Lincoln squad.
It was Jenkins, who described her personality as the opposite of Cooper’s, who helped Cooper adjust to her new environment.
“I would say to Destini, ‘Come on, D, we’re going out. Let’s go meet people,’ just to get her out of her comfort zone,” Jenkins said. “In college, you have to meet new people because you don't always want to be with the same group of ladies all the time.”
One place where both ladies have always felt comfortable is on the court. Through years of playing together, Cooper and Jenkins have developed a chemistry that transcends verbal communication.
“She knows that I’m a penetrator, not a shooter,” Jenkins said. “I’m trying to get my team involved and she’s always ready.”
The crafty facilitator trails only starting point guard Kat Yelle for most assists through 18 games.
“We’ll make eye contact. Then, we’ll look away from each other and then she passes,” Cooper said. “We don’t even have to talk when I’m open. She just kind of knows.”
The physical forward is only 20 rebounds behind Lexie Baldwin for the team lead, through 18 games.
In an offense that thrives off of quick ball movement, Jackson noted that having two players being able to feed off one another helps in the running of the offense.
It can often be the little things that showcase the bond between Cooper and Jenkins. The joking around during practices, finishing each other’s sentences during interviews and the overall sense of relaxation when they are around one another. It is easy to tell that the two have been friends for nearly a decade.
They’ve relied on each other since the fifth grade and there’s still a lot of games left in the ladies from Reynoldsburg.