USC Women's Basketball

In this top-10 recruit’s dreams, Dawn Staley and USC are ‘just so profound’

Zia Cooke at Rogers High School in Toledo on Monday, November 20, 2017. THE BLADE/KURT STEISS
Zia Cooke at Rogers High School in Toledo on Monday, November 20, 2017. THE BLADE/KURT STEISS The Blade/Kurt Steiss

Both Dawn Staley and Jolette Law know very well and have talked about the importance of long-term relationships that are so crucial in recruiting.

Zia Cooke, a consensus top-10 recruit in the class of 2019, is proof of that. But whether or not it will pay off for South Carolina women’s basketball is still unknown.

Staley and her staff at USC women’s basketball has been pursuing Cooke, a Toledo, Ohio, native, for nearly five years now, showing interest in her back she was in eighth grade. Since then, Cooke has developed into the No. 7 player in her class and the No. 2 player at the point guard position, according to ESPN. Guiding her team to a state championship as a junior, she averaged 21.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.1 steals per game.

According to Zia’s father, Stratman Cooke III, she caught Staley’s eye from an early age, and ever since then, they’ve developed a strong connection.

“Coach Staley had come to an (AAU) tournament that we were playing in, and she was just supposed to come to the end of one game … and she ended up after that, she watched every game of Zia. She’s come to Toledo for an open gym for Zia’s high school. And her and Dawn ended up building a really good relationship from a mentor and player perspective,” Stratman Cooke said.

Zia also connected with another coach from an early age, her father said — Law, then an assistant at Tennessee. When Law left the Lady Vols to join the Gamecocks, it helped to solidify Zia’s relationship with USC after Nikki McCray, the coach who first recruited her before leaving to take the head coaching job at Old Dominion.

“This ended up being kinda like a ‘match made in heaven’ type of thing ... when she found out Law was going to South Carolina, that really, really put an emphasis on Zia being more interested in South Carolina,” Stratman Cooke said.

Alongside USC, Cooke’s finalists are Mississippi State, Louisville, Texas, Tennessee and Ohio State. The family visited South Carolina the weekend of Aug. 31, and they left impressed with the school’s facilities and convinced that Staley could mentor Zia.

“She really was impressed by coach Staley’s honesty and her straight-forwardness, but at the same time, she had a hospitable way that she treated Zia,” Stratman Cooke said of the visit. “Zia really believes in her, she really believes that she’s a person who can make her better. Zia has always looked up to coach Staley. When Zia was little, this was before Zia’s time, I was a very big fan of coach Staley’s when she played basketball, so I would show YouTube videos of her ... for Zia to see and Zia had never even met her and wanted to play for her. She said I want to play for the best because I want to be the best.”

The Cookes also attended the Coastal Carolina football game during their visit, where program great A’ja Wilson was honored in front of home crowd, earning a warm ovation. Seeing the recognition Wilson received made an impression of Zia, Stratman Cooke said, especially as she considers whether or not she wants to leave her home state.

“So there’s 80,000 fans honoring (Wilson), and (Zia) saw that warm reception that she received, so she was like, ‘If I can get this team there, they’ll receive me the same way,’” Stratman Cooke said. “She understands that can’t single-handedly be done, so she’s looking at a lot of things as far as roster, distance will play a part, but I think that her being able to become the player that she wants to become professionally and in college, and being able to receive the proper guidance and tutelage, her mentorship and coaching, will override the distance.”

Faith and prayer are playing major roles in Zia’s decision-making process, her father said, and he believes South Carolina is right there among the two programs she is considering the most.

“She said (the other day), ‘I had a dream, and South Carolina was just so profound in my dream.’ So I was like, ‘OK, let’s talk about it,’” Stratman Cooke said. “We spent a while talking about it, and she went, ‘I don’t know, I feel like God’s telling me that’s where I need to be,’ and she’s like, ‘If Dawn would put into me what she put into A’ja Wilson, I would be the best point guard to ever play this game.’”

The timeline for that decision, however, remains uncertain. One indication of Cooke’s thinking might be where the No. 9 player in the class, Rickea Jackson, ends up — Jackson and Cooke took all five of their official visits together, and Stratman Cooke said “it’s a very good possibility” that they end up committing to the same school.

What attracts both players to South Carolina, Stratman Cooke said, is the program’s all-encompassing approach to a student-athlete’s experience.

“South Carolina is very unique in its nutrition plan, and Dawn is really interactive with the academics and with the nutrition. She’s really interactive as far as communication with the tutors, with the academic advisers. She’s the only college coach that we’ve spoken to that has the no social media rule during the season,” he said. “So she has things in place that you can see why she was able to do the things that she’s done as far as national championships, Final Fours, SEC championships.”