Since delving into the sport of wrestling at age 5, Raynald Cooper III has had a coach, personal trainer and advisor by his side every step of the way.
The Pearl City senior routinely puts in extra work after practice with his father Raynald Cooper Jr., a former prep wrestler himself, and his younger brother Blake, a freshman at Pearl City. The lifelong tutelage and hours of extra training have paid dividends for the younger "Ray" in the form of notoriety as one of the state’s top prep wrestlers.
"He helped me to learn everything I know now; it’s all because of my dad," said Cooper. "He’s been telling me that I have to train hard, not give up, and that there’s no rest ’til the end of the season."
Cooper is a two-time defending Oahu Interscholastic Association and state champion grappler, winning the 152-pound title as a sophomore and at 160 pounds last season as a junior. His success garnered national recognition, as Wrestling USA Magazine National Editor Dan Fickel ranked Cooper the No. 27 wrestler nationally at 160 pounds in November.
"His mind and his heart are what drives this team. His focus and goal was to become a state champ," said Pearl City coach Mike Lee. "He’s a great young man and a lot of people have these misconceptions about him because on the mat, he’s an animal, just attacking.
"He’s got the muscles and the conditioning, but he doesn’t believe that there’s anything he can’t accomplish. He dives straight in with the mind-set that he’ll prevail at anything, and the kids feed off that."
As is the case with many grapplers, the prospect of winning multiple titles at different weight classes is enticing on multiple fronts, especially at the high school level. As athletes’ bodies get naturally larger, the opportunity to move up in weight allows wrestlers to face new opponents and adjust their technique and strategy accordingly.
Cooper has moved up to the 171-pound class, where he will make a run at a third straight state title this year. So far, he has risen to the challenge, showing he is worthy of championship consideration after beating Patrick Sheehan of Punahou — the 2009 state-title winner in the division — in a tight 3-1 victory at the Hawaii Wrestling Officials Association Scholarship Tournament this month.
"I wanted to move up and challenge Patrick because he’s the guy to beat," said Cooper, who also noted that the transition to the higher weight class was seamless. During football season, he weighed more than 180 pounds, and his natural weight is just under 170, so he doesn’t have to drop or add weight prior to meets.
"(Sheehan) has been the 171-pound starter for Punahou since he was a freshman," added Cooper. "The first time we challenged, he beat me 6-0.
"He has great conditioning and he took me down three times. So in the weeks following, I had to prepare. I had to work on my conditioning and to get ready for him. I’ve just got to keep working hard because he’s going to come back harder and stronger."
Barring any upsets or unforeseen injuries, the pair will probably meet for a rubber match in this week’s ‘Iolani Invitational, which runs tomorrow and Thursday.
Cooper enters the wrestling campaign off a successful season on the gridiron, where he helped the Chargers notch a 5-4 mark in OIA competition, and played a major role as Pearl City finished its season one point away from upsetting eventual OIA White Division champion Kaimuki in the OIA semifinals.
As a reserve running back, Cooper averaged 7 yards per rush, racking up 404 yards on 58 carries, including three touchdowns. He also added to the Chargers’ passing attack, hauling in 15 balls for 200 yards and two more scores.
"Wrestling is my all-around best sport, but football is a lot of fun," said Cooper. "It was awesome and we had a good season but came up just short. Football helps with conditioning strength-wise, but wresting is a one man sport, so it’s the total opposite to prepare for."
Cooper has expressed interest at wrestling at the collegiate level, and while he has received letters of interest from numerous schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Hawaii (to play football), he has not yet fielded any official scholarship offers. Oregon State tops Cooper’s wish list of potential colleges where he would "love" to play football and wrestle, but the senior interested in studying criminal justice knows he needs to "bring my GPA (of around 2.8) up; I wasn’t doing too well in my underclassman years."
As the preseason winds down, and the OIA season approaches next month, Cooper has set three goals: not to get taken down, don’t let an opponent score more than two points on him in a match, and win every match.
"I’m looking forward to the OIA and states, I’m ready to face everybody," Cooper said. "I’m ready for the challenge."