Justin Cooper has treated everything that’s come his way as an opportunity.
When the Robbinsville High School ice hockey goalie was on the bench in his first two seasons, it was a chance to learn. When he stepped into a starting role last year, it was a chance to shine. When he’s sought out extra ice time and chances to play, it’s to hone his craft. And this year he’s added captain duties to his plate for his senior season with the Ravens.
“I’ve always felt a responsibility to lead the team,” Cooper said. “It’s something I’ve been working toward since I was a freshman and watching certain guys take that role, it motivates you to assume that position when you get there.”
Cooper’s road to a leader on ice got a late start. He was focused on baseball until middle school when he made a switch to skates.
“Growing up, I’d always wanted to be a goalie,” Cooper said. “I’d never gotten around to it. Baseball was always my sport. That didn’t work out and so I decided I’d teach myself to skate with a little help from my dad. At that time, I had two years before high school started. I was going to work my tail off and see if I could make the high school team.
“I sat the bench in travel for a year, my first year. I took a starting role the next year and over the next few years, I’ve been playing travel until I’m here now. A lot of work, a lot of sitting the bench, a lot of practices, a lot of late nights, but I couldn’t ask for a better position to be in. It just started when I was young and I worked towards playing.”
Cooper didn’t play much in his first two years of high school with the Ravens. He sat behind an upperclassmen, a sponge to all that was going on around him.
“It was definitely tough,” he said. “I don’t like sitting the bench, I don’t think anyone does. It definitely makes your playing time more special. I’m glad I was able to sit the bench to get to learn from everyone. This is a level of play I wasn’t used to. There were kids four years older than me. To see how my elders went about their business, how they handled things, how they approached games, how they prepared, you’re not just thrown into the fire – you sort of get to see how does guys prepare, how does he does this, what does he do right, what does he do wrong and how can I learn from his mistakes. Then you take everything you’ve learned from everyone else and apply it to yourself and that’s the player you become.”
It’s worked out well for Robbinsville. Cooper has taken to his new passion. He was an All-Colonial Valley Conference goalie last year with an .890 save percentage and 332 saves.
“I was happy that I felt like I gave us a chance to win every single time we hit the ice,” Cooper said. “By virtue of my position, a bad game for me is a bad game for the team. That’s a lot of pressure so I was proud of the way I was able to handle that and give us a chance to win no matter who we were playing.”
The Ravens are a little bit of a younger team this year. Cooper is one of only three seniors for a team that started 3-3-2 before three straight losses.
“I think in the beginning we saw a lot of depth in the team, way more than last year,” said second-year head coach Rob Davis. “I was able to run a line and a half maybe last year. This year, I can run about three lines. We’re working on finding our flow, and one of the big issues is we have some kids that play at a high level of travel. It’s difficult in a way to play with when we ask them to play our systems, sometimes it’s a mix-up between what we ask them to play and what they play with travel.”
The makeup of the team shows that Robbinsville, which is playing again as a co-op with Allentown High School, has talent. The mix of the two schools gives them players with skill enough to top last year’s seven-win total.
“Where we sit now I think it has the potential to be better and certainly the talent to be better,” Cooper said. “If we just bear down for the second half of the season and come together and work hard every single time we touch the ice, all it takes is one win. You have a big win against a good team and all of a sudden, you’re on a roll. I feel like once we string together a few wins, I think we could really right the ship and we’re certainly capable of doing that.”
The first line has led the offensive end. Jack Pallitto, who moved from a defenseman spot midseason last year, is one of the top scorers in the CVC and partnered with Mitch Ducalo and Liam Hartmann. Robbinsville’s offensive production is reaping the benefits of its deeper talent with more goal-scoring.
“That definitely increased from last year,” Davis said. “We made a late shift to move a defenseman up to forward. He’s one of, if not, our top scorer. That’s helped our first line. We’ve been connecting on the ice and that first line has a big plus-minus.”
Cooper is trying to do his part again between the pipes. The Robbinsville three-game losing streak was snapped by a 3-0 shutout, his first shutout of the season. He had 25 saves in the win.
“Justin Cooper has been very consistent,” Davis said. “The kid’s dedication and drive is bar none. Over the summer, he let me know of camps and things he was doing to improve. We talk pretty regularly, and he takes the game to heart. He’s a very dedicated player to the team and takes it seriously. He takes the blame for breakdowns on the ice, but I haven’t had one goal that was on him.”
Cooper’s strong faith helps him handle the pressure of the goalie position and helps him keep the sport in perspective. He takes ownership for the goals allowed, and does all he can to keep the team looking forward.
“It’s really about taking accountability, being a leader and setting up the guys that are going to be there for the next year or so and setting them up for success,” Cooper said. “I’m just trying to create a culture and show them what it’s like to win and show them what they need to do to prepare and show them what it takes to win. Hopefully in doing that they can have success in the future.”
Cooper is helping to invest in that future with his back-up goalie, Allentown’s Michael Zuppa. Zuppa came to the position and the sport just last year and Cooper is helping to groom him for next season when he could take over the starting spot.
“It was about what can I show him and how can I carry myself that he can then replicate and see hopefully the same if not more success than me.” Cooper said. “I’m confident in him just seeing how he’s improved over the last couple years.”
Cooper is trying to make this season last as long as possible. It’s bittersweet to be a senior and a leader, but also know it’s his last high school season. He’s hoping that the Ravens can make a late run in tournament time.
“The way I see the Mercer County Tournament, it’s a chance to shock some people,” he said. “We’re obviously not the favorites, but we can go out there and maybe surprise some people and catch a team off guard, maybe win a game that we shouldn’t. That’s what I really look forward to having the opportunity to do.”
Cooper has been happy with the way things have progressed since taking up the goalie position. He’s climbed in role and responsibility each year and is seeing his dedication pay off to cap his career at Robbinsville.
“It’s certainly satisfying,” Cooper said. “My takeaway is something a little more than hockey. I looked at it as a goal I’d have to work at really hard if I wanted to accomplish it. It wasn’t something I could just throw on a pair of skates and go out and do. I think it was a very valuable learning experience to see what it’s like to have to work for something that the reward is not immediate for and stick to it for multiple years no matter how long it took, and to eventually see that pay off has been extremely gratifying.”