It’s no longer fair to call the La Verne Lutheran Trojans a “sleeping” giant. Just call them a giant, with a capital “G.”
Two years ago, the Trojans went 28-0. Last year, they lost in the CIF- 5AA finals to Windward High School, a senior-loaded team that boasted three future Division I players. This season, the Trojans are stacked with as many as six to eight Division I players. Mind you, this is a school with a total school enrollment of about 150 students – and that might be a stretch.
How can a team with such a small student body produce such a huge and dominant basketball team? The answer lies at the feet of its coach, Eric Cooper.
Coach Cooper not only has street “cred”; he has court credentials. Out of Banning High School, he attended college basketball powerhouse, the University of Arizona, playing for legendary coach Lute Olsen and helping the Wildcats win the Pac 10 Championship in 1985. He later transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio where he helped the Roadrunners win the Trans American Conference Championship.
Twice he played in the NCAA tournament before his teams were eliminated by Auburn and Illinois.
He took his player pedigree overseas for seven years, where he played professional basketball in Germany, Holland, Sweden, Slovania and Ukraine. He went back on the road for another world tour playing for the Magic Johnson All-Stars. His resume also includes coaching with the Phoenix Mercury’s Cynthia Cooper in the WNBA and with three three different ABA teams, including one as assistant to Scott Brooks, the new coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA.
With Coach Cooper’s son, Eric Cooper, Jr., quickly approaching high school age, and growing even faster, the coach didn’t relish being on the road while his son was in Southern California.
“I thought it was more important to be back here than having my son seeing me on TV,” Cooper said.
So three years ago, Cooper took the La Verne Lutheran job, and success has quickly followed.
He’s been able to draw top talent to the small Christian school because of a reputation that has grown over the years by caring for his players and grooming them for bigger arenas down the road. He also coached several successful AAU squads where other players and parents could observe the positive way he handled his teams.
“We won a national championship with the AAU program, so by then the name of our program was getting around,” said Cooper, preparing the Trojans for a tip-off against Dorsey High later that evening.
When word came that Cooper was coming to La Verne Lutheran, the players started to follow.
This season, Cooper again has a strong nucleus and guard tandem in his son Eric, a 14-year-old (6-2) freshman and his (6-0) nephew, Carl, “CJ” Cooper. They both can run point and play the off guard or shooting position.
Playing power forward for the Trojans is Grant Jerrett, a 6-foot-8 bundle of talent ranked by ESPN as the 94th best high school player in the United States. “He has an NBA body right now and shoots like Paul Gasol,” Cooper said. “He can play for a big school like North Carolina.”
At the small forward spot is 6-foot-1 junior Bruce English, described by Cooper as “a slasher that is always fouling the other team’s players out.”
Filling the middle for the Trojans will be 6-foot-8 junior center Xavier Jones, who should be the Trojans top shot blocker and No. 1 intimidator around the rim.
For Cooper’s team to advance, he realizes his players need more than court sense. “We make sure every player is cutting it in the classroom, too, and preparing for their SATs,” said Cooper, understanding that grades as much points per game and vertical leaps are what it takes for his young players to reach the next level.
Tonight in Pasadena, Cooper will get a better measure of his talent when the Trojans square off against the Dorsey High School Dons in the Pasadena Rose City Classic at 8 p.m. Cooper doesn’t schedule pre-season patsies.
It could certainly prove worth the drive, considering the number of future college stars Cooper will be bringing with him on the team bus.