By JESS WEBSTER
Photo: TJ Yelds/NEAFL.
To understand Nathan Cooper’s best-on-ground performance last Saturday, you need to know who he was dealing with.
There is no player more synonymous with NEAFL goalkicking history than four-time winner, Darren Ewing.
The NT Thunder star – and the competition’s record games holder – has won the NEAFL Goalkicking Award four times in six seasons.
When Sydney University coach Tom Morrison handed the job of Ewing to Cooper, he knew the first thing to do – his homework.
“I was looking forward to the challenge (of playing on Ewing) going in to the game, obviously hearing of how good he is,” Cooper said.
“I watched a bit of vision of him with (teammate and Students defensive coach) Will Sierakowski and I had a little bit of a game plan, knowing what he was going to try and do.
“And then I just did my best to stop it.”
Cooper played the best match of his 24-game NEAFL career to date, keeping Ewing goalless for just the seventh time in his 127-game career, to earn this week’s Rising Star nomination.
What is even more impressive about the 19-year-old rugby convert, is he only started playing as a defender in the final six weeks of last season.
The Pennant Hills junior is a former Sydney Swans Academy member, making his NEAFL debut in 2015 before spending last season as part of the Swans’ NEAFL Development Squad.
He played eight games – including the Grand Final loss to the GIANTS – before joining Sydney University this year, where he hasn’t missed a game so far.
Cooper is part of a young, new-look Students backline which includes fellow NEAFL Rising Star nominee Darcy Baron-Hay and Ryan Hebron.
The trio are often given the task on the opposition’s best forwards, and it is the confidence instilled in them by coach Tom Morrison that is bringing out the best in his young prodigies.
“Being able to train in that (defensive) position over the pre-season… and having the opportunity to be in the same side every week and learning the role – I’ve really enjoyed it,” Cooper said.
“There is a lot of AFL knowledge at the club so that’s been a great help.
“Morro has been a great coach, I was really happy joining Sydney Uni with him as the coach, and I’ve been really impressed with him.
“It’s a good environment to play in, and it’s going really well at the moment.”
Cooper, who was named in the initial NEAFL representative squad for this week’s clash with Tasmania, is the Students’ third Rising Star nominee this year after Callum McFadden (Round 3) and Baron-Hay (Round 4).
The club is flying at the top of the NEAFL ladder after 10 rounds, but Cooper said there are bigger goals in reach for him and the team.
“I want to play the best footy I can week-in, week-out, and hopefully help Sydney Uni win the flag at the end of the year,” he said.
“But I also have a strong desire to play AFL football one day – that’s my ultimate goal.”
The Rising Star is awarded to the most promising young talent in the NEAFL competition.
Nominees must be under the age of 21 and played less than 20 senior games (excluding games as AFL Academy players) at the start of the 2017 season.
Keep track of all of our 2017 nominees here.
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