Connor Cookingham always had the raw skills -- most notably a laser-like left-handed shot -- to be a dominant water polo player.
But during his first two seasons at Clovis High, Cookingham played more of a complementary role to the Cougars' seniors.
"Something for him clicked over the summer," Clovis co-coach Matt Berry said. "It was kind of freaky how he transitioned from his junior to senior year. Water polo started making sense to him, and he became a really dangerous player."
Sensing it was time to emerge as a team leader, Cookingham dedicated himself to extra work in the weight room and more time studying film beyond Clovis' three-plus-hour daily practices after producing 44 goals and 35 goals combined his first two years.
A 96-goal, 16-assist season that powered the 24-8 Cougars to a share of the Tri-River Athletic Conference title and a Central Section Division I runner-up finish while producing a league MVP award for Cookingham, The Bee's boys Player of the Year in the sport.
"I felt more confident because I worked hard to be where I was at," Cookingham said. "I really just wanted to be a leader on the team. We knew we had a really strong chance of being Valley champs, and that hope drove me and our team to step up our game this year."
Cookingham often was at his best when the pressure was on. For example:
-- He scored seven goals when the Cougars clinched a share of the TRAC title with a 15-6 regular-season-ending win over Clovis West.
-- Cookingham's fourth goal of the Division I semifinal -- on the first possession of sudden-victory -- lifted Clovis over Clovis North 11-10 in one of the section's most riveting games of the season.
-- And, he kept the second-seeded Cougars close against No. 1 Buchanan with five goals during an 8-7 loss in the D-I final.
"Even when teams game-planned around Connor, they still couldn't stop him," Berry said. "I know Buchanan's goal was to stop Connor and he still scored five goals. We came up short, but he was still awesome.
"When the situation was big time, he stepped up and was our big-time guy. He didn't really let us down at all this year."
Cookingham's breakthrough performance extended beyond the offensive end of the pool.
The powerfully built 5-foot-11, 172-pound senior also developed into a force on defense after admittedly struggling in that area in the past.
"It just kind of clicked more this season than past seasons," Cookingham said.
Berry said Cookingham took his most glaring weakness -- guarding the opponent's center -- and turned it into a strength.
"Last year, he'd get ejected every time," Berry said. "But this year, he was one of our best defensive players. He knew where the ball was and when to leave his guy to help with someone else. It came from spending a lot of time studying game film."
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CONNOR COOKINGHAM
He's qualified because: Emerged as one of the Central Section's biggest scoring threats with his lethal left-handed shot during his third varsity season with the Cougars. He scored 96 goals on 55% shooting accuracy while dishing out 16 assists for Division I runner-up Clovis, which finished 24-8. Was named the Tri-River Athletic Conference MVP after leading the Cougars to a share of the league crown. Also named a third-team California/Hawaii Coaches All-American. Planning to play for Fresno Pacific or Cal Baptist next season.
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