by Sean O’Brien
Shepherd senior first baseman Jake Cook grew up on a farm in Centreville, Maryland, a forty-five minute drive from Ocean City. Centreville was a rural community with a lot of farmland surrounding it. Jake’s grandfather was a farmer and helped teach the young Cook on the merits of a solid work ethic. That work ethic is what a leader on a team with only three seniors needs to have in order to set an example for the younger players to follow.
“‘There was always something to be done’, he’d tell me,” said Jake.
Family was never far from Cook. Along with his parents Tom and Laura, his aunts and uncles and grandparents all lived close by.
“Being able to see them helped me stay grounded and made me remember where I came from,” Cook told me.
Baseball is literally in the blood. Jake started at a young age, learning the ropes from his dad, Tom. Tom played shortstop for Shepherd back in the early 1980’s after two years at Chesapeake. He graduated from Shepherd in 1983 and now drives trucks.
Jake continued playing baseball into high school at Queen Anne County High in Centreville for Dale Becraft. He excelled there, lettering all four years in baseball and soccer. Twice he made first team All-Conference for both sports, playing for two East Regional Champion soccer teams. The school had a weight lifting team in which Cook also participated in. He was not a victim of any sort of senior slump in the classroom, either. In his final year at the school, Jake earned senior scholar-athlete honors.
The success he had on and off the athletic fields gained interest from multiple colleges. They held showcases for baseball players to display their talents, and Jake trained with Shepherd assistant baseball coach Mike Spry. Spry himself was a standout for the Rams, starting for them from 1999 until he graduated in 2002. Spry mentioned Cook’s name to then-coach Wayne Riser.
“It was a good transition once I got here. It was a solid team coming off a few good seasons. I realized right away I was not ‘the man’ like I was in high school. That’s when I knew I had to work even harder,” said Jake.
Cook redshirted in 2009. When he finally got on the field in 2010, he had a productive year with a .283 batting average and a .969 fielding percentage. The following season he upped his batting average to .289. In his junior season, Cook had an astounding .340 average in forty-eight games, starting forty-three of them. If you think he couldn’t improve upon that success this season, think again. Jake has started all twenty-four games, posting a .348 batting average and is second on the team in runs batted in.
“What I want the younger guys to realize is I earned my spot. I worked hard to get where I am at, and I want that to rub off on them,” Jake said.
This past offseason, one era ended and a whole new one began. The transition began with the departure of former Shepherd first baseman Nathan Minnich. Minnich was honored with the Tino Martinez Award which is for the Division II Player of the Year. He left behind a legendary mark as a Ram, finishing as the all-time leader in runs (187), hits (250), RBI (206), home runs (58), walks (136) and total bases (463). Minnich was drafted in the eighth round of last year’s MLB draft by the Boston Red Sox.
“He was the best hitter I have ever played with. He was a power guy and was good for four or five runs each game. Now that he is gone it is a totally different team. We have to focus on the fundamentals and everyone has to play their role to perfection,” Jake stated.
That loss was expected. The next one was not. When head coach Wayne Riser left to take the same position at the University of Mary Washington last September, the whole team was caught off guard. Riser was an institution at Shepherd, coaching for twenty-two seasons. He is the all-time leader in wins for any sport in Rams’ history with 512 and was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2008.
“We were all in shock. Nobody knew that Coach Riser was going to leave,” Jake told me.
In stepped Matt McCarty. McCarty was a two-year standout for the Rams from 2008 to 2009 and helped lead the Rams to the WVIAC title and an NCAA regional appearance as a senior in 2009.
McCarty is a 2010 graduate from Shepherd and named the interim head baseball coach in the same month that Riser stepped down. He spent two years as an assistant coach under Riser and was elevated to full-time assistant coach in 2011.
“I think it’s beneficial for everyone. Matt is more of a players’ coach. It was a huge confidence boost for all of us. Since he is younger he can relate to us on more things and it really helps bridge the gap.”
Currently the Rams are riding a four game win streak which puts them on 11-13 for the season and 8-3 in the WVIAC. They are 11-3 in their last fourteen games.
“We are really hitting our stride. We have played a lot of tough teams so far so it was rocky at first, but now I think we have gotten over that initial hurdle,” said Jake.
The Rams have twenty games left and Cook hopes they make the most of them in order to get into the WVIAC playoffs.
“I really hope we can get a top seed and go deep into the playoffs. That’s our main goal right now,” he told me.
A lot of change can occur in four years. Cook went from being a “wet-behind-the-ears” freshman into a veteran senior leader, and I was curious what present-day Jake would tell his freshman self from 2009.
“Keep working hard, and never get down when times are tough.”
Cook’s work ethic is what has gotten him this far. By maintaining it, he not only makes himself better but everyone around him- and that’s a great thing for the Rams.