When Alison Cooke was playing volleyball at the high school and club levels, she was one of the state’s top outside hitters.
But a position change has made Cooke one of the nation’s top players, and put her college team in position to win a national championship.
Cooke, who graduated from North Mecklenburg High, switched from outside hitter to setter after signing with Wingate, a position change almost unheard of in volleyball.
“It’s worked out pretty well,” said Cooke, now a red-shirt senior. “I never imagined that I would have had the success that I’ve had at Wingate.”
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Cooke led the Bulldogs to a sweep of the South Atlantic Conference’s regular-season and tournament titles this season – earning tournament most valuable player honors on the way – and their third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament’s Elite Eight.
Wingate lost in the national quarterfinals to Grand Valley State 3-0 on Dec. 4.
“She’s had some matches in her career where she’s exceeded expectations,” Wingate coach Shelton Collier said. “Last year, we defeated nationally-ranked teams and went to the Elite Eight with her as our setter, and we’re doing the same thing this year.”
Yet at North Mecklenburg, Cooke was one of the region’s top high school hitters. She had 364 kills her senior year, third-best among Mecklenburg County teams public or private, and 11th-best in the state.
Cooke also earned I-Meck 4A Player of the Year honors her senior year as the Vikings finished 25-3, won the I-Meck regular-season title and advanced to the Western Regional final in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state tournament.
That got her attention from several colleges, but it was Wingate that drew Cooke’s eye, even though Collier had other plans for the 5-foot-10 hitter.
“I guess he saw me play and set up balls during a match, and decided ‘I think I’m going to make her a setter,’” Cooke said. “I was kind of apprehensive about it at first, but I did a clinic with him and did some repetitions as a setter, and it turned out pretty good.”
After redshirting her freshman year, Cooke shared the position with Liz Willis – third on Wingate’s career assists list with 4,184 – in 2011, then took over the position as the full-time starter in 2012.
“It worked out perfectly,” Collier said. “Yeah, transforming from a hitter to a setter, there were some rough spots where she was learning and developing. She really had to show some special qualities to keep moving forward, and she was able to do that.”
Cooke is among D-II’s top setters with 1,168 assists entering Wingate’s Elite Eight match against Grand Valley State. That puts her 41st among D-II players in total assists, and her 10.52 assists per set average is 39th nationally.
In addition, Cooke’s 3,102 career assists – most of those coming over the past three seasons – puts her fourth on the Bulldogs’ all-time list.
“The analogy might be somebody playing wide receiver in football all of their life, and somebody thinks that they can maybe play quarterback and teach them how to play the position in college,” said Collier, the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s national D-II coach of the year in 2013.
“It’s about as common as that would be. As a setter or a quarterback, you learn those skills pretty early in life, say, 13 or 14 years old. She was obviously one of the better hitters in high school, but with her personality and physical attributes, I thought a transformation was possible.”