Winning Attitude For Cooks At Iup It's Division Ii Now For The Former Gratz Player.

Posted: March 22, 2000

Shatee Cooks still has that Simon Gratz mentality.

Cinderellas? Underdogs? Former Gratz players just don't think of themselves that way. No matter who the opposition is, they always have the edge.

Which is why Cooks, a 1997 Gratz graduate, feels good about tonight's NCAA Division II Elite Eight men's basketball game between Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Kentucky Wesleyan at Louisville's Commonwealth Convention Center.

Sure, Wesleyan (29-2) won the national championship last season and reached the final the year before. Sure, IUP (25-7) has had to upset just about every team it has played in the postseason to get where it is, including its last three victories over nationally ranked teams in the East Regional.

But to consider Wesleyan the favorite? Come on, Cooks says, IUP may be the hottest team in Division II right now.

It might be. Since January, when IUP lost four of six games during a bumpy stretch, the Indians have won 12 of their last 13 games.

"Underdogs? No. I consider ourselves the most confident team here," said Cooks, a 6-foot-8, 260-pounder who transferred from Coppin State after playing one year and sitting out another. "We're like a family. We're so together right now. It amazes me. We knew we could play with these guys. The team that wins the national championship has the most heart. We've got the most heart."

Cooks feels fortunate to be here. At Coppin State, Cooks saw limited playing time and did not see eye-to-eye with his coach, Fang Mitchell.

"We didn't even see face to face," Cooks said. "So I came here. I'm a big fish in a little pond now, instead of a little fish in a big pond."

If Cooks, who is averaging 4.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game coming off the bench, had stayed at Coppin State, his season would have been over almost two weeks ago. Instead, he has the opportunity to help IUP to the Final Four for the first time since 1995.

"I guess I'm the only person from Philly still playing right now," he said.

And Indians coach Gary Edwards is glad to have him. He credits Cooks for a big part of IUP's success. On a team without much size - only 6-foot-11 senior Grahame Cummins is taller than Cooks - the Indians need his presence inside.

Which is why Edwards and his players were concerned when Cooks sprained his ankle Monday in practice.

Don't worry, though. Cooks said there is no way he will miss tonight's game.

"It will be crucial for him to play against their big guys," Edwards said.

Edwards, who is in his fourth season at IUP, also moved from a Division I program to Division II. He coached at Charleston Southern for nine seasons before taking the Indians post.

He, too, saw the benefits at this level.

"As a young player or coach, you think Division I is the ultimate, but once you're in it you realize that's not necessarily true," he said. "The programs here are every bit as good, if not better, than quite a few of the Division I programs in the country.

"This is why I came. When you're at that level of Division I, winning your conference is the ultimate because you get to the Big Dance. But what is your reward? You're probably going to be a 16 or 15 seed and probably get your shorts blown off in front of the country. I wanted a bigger reward. I wanted a reward like this. We have a legitimate shot of playing for the national championship."

Which is what Cooks thinks his team can do.

"At Gratz, we were expected to win. At Coppin, we were expected to win. We're winning here now, too," he said. "I feel good about this team. We had to work hard for this. We overcame more obstacles than anybody else."

* In a women's Division II Elite Eight game at Pine Bluff, Ark., another Pennsylvania school - Slippery Rock (23-6) - plays Western Washington (26-3) tonight.

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