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Wyoming forward Derek Cooke hopes improved conditioning leads to stellar senior season

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LARAMIE, Wyoming — Derek Cooke Jr. was built for the sprint, not the marathon.

Since he arrived in Laramie prior to the 2012-13 season, the wiry 6-foot-9 forward has been explosive — in spurts. One moment, he'd be the fastest player on the floor — first to the ball, first to the basket, first to stick his head and gravity-defying puffs of black hair above the rim on a dunk.

The next moment, he'd be exhausted. Done. Cooked.

"When I get tired, my fatigue just kind of gets the best of me," Cooke said. "Coach (Larry) Shyatt always says, 'The first thing the fatigue hits is your mind.'"

Shyatt compared Cooke to one of his former players at Florida, Joakim Noah, who would exert absolutely everything he had for several minutes at a time, then crash.

Cooke could explode, but he couldn't sustain.

"There might have been some times in practice or a game where DC (Cooke) gave in to fatigue," Wyoming assistant coach Jeremy Shyatt said. "I think it frustrated his teammates and coaches because we knew just how good he could be."

When forward Larry Nance Jr. tore his ACL with five regular season games still to play last season, Cooke — who averaged 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in 22.6 minutes per game — was asked to fill that void.

Play more. Rebound more. Block more.

Be productive, for longer.

"Last year with Nance going down, my minutes had to go up," Cooke said. "At first I wasn't ready, conditioning-wise."

This offseason, Shyatt approached Cooke with a challenge:

Be the best-conditioned big man in the Mountain West. Period.

Not just in spurts.

The 6-9, 220-pound forward's speed is apparent, as he glides over stretches of hardwood in long, effortless strides. In sprints at the end of practice, 6-2 guard Josh Adams usually finishes first.

Usually.

When it's not Adams or point guard Trey Washington, it's Cooke.

"I like winning. I like competing," Cooke said. "I know Trey and Josh are usually the fastest guys on our team, so I line up next to one of those guys and just race 'em. They'll beat me probably eight times out of 10.

"But those two times, I take pride in beating them."

In his free time this summer, aside from the team's regularly scheduled conditioning, Cooke addressed his endurance. He ran the steps of War Memorial Stadium with Jeremy Shyatt, sprinting up each section two steps at a time. And once the stadium had been conquered, Cooke and Shyatt moved down to the field.

The player and coach stuck to a routine. Starting on the goal line, they walked to the 5-yard line, then jogged back to the goal line. Then they sprinted to the 10-yard line, then walked back to the goal line. Then they jogged to the 15-yard line, then sprinted back to the goal line.

Back and forth. Walk, jog, sprint. Over and over and over.

Once they hit the 50-yard line, they turned around and did the same thing going back.

As the workouts dragged on, Cooke began pushing through that familiar fatigue. His explosiveness endured. He could go faster, and longer.

"By the third or fourth time, you could just see him getting in better shape," Jeremy Shyatt said. "I remember telling him, 'Hey, pass me. Keep going.'"

That improvement has trickled onto the court, as Cooke can feel himself maintaining his energetic, frenzied pace throughout longer stretches of practice and scrimmages.

He still explodes, but he doesn't crash.

"The most noticeable thing for me is his ability to come with energy every day," Larry Shyatt said. "Part of that is because he's in better shape. That's been tremendous.

"It's helped our young kids. I think it's even sent a positive message to our veterans."

Of course, Cooke is still running with the guards in all the sprints. He has also worked to improve his free-throw shooting and develop a mid-range jump shot, and has led the Cowboys in scoring in each of their first two scrimmages.

But the energy that Cooke is known for — those fast-break dunks, the blocked shots he swats like volleyballs, the rebounds he nabs at the peak of a well-timed leap — will be on display in heavier doses.

The stadium has already been conquered. The season is next in line.

"It's bittersweet," said Cooke, one of six Cowboy seniors. "This is our last run at it, so we want to make it the best year possible."


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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