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How Red Stars rookie Ava Cook defied doubters to reach NWSL

The 2022 18th overall pick has two goals and three assists with Chicago this season. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

People’s expectations of Ava Cook used to be as tiny as she was.

Family friend Todd Wells still has a team picture from when he coached Cook in U15 club soccer. In the photograph, he’s towering over Cook, a B-team player who dreamed of playing professional soccer but had received only a couple of offers from Division III schools.

Cook weighed less than 90 pounds at the time, and yet Wells could tell ever since she was in elementary school training with the high schoolers he coached with Cook’s dad that she was special. He believed in all of his players, but he was relentless with Ava, the closest thing he had ever had to a daughter. When Cook got to high school and played against Wells’ team, she had his vote for Player of the Year, while the other coaches in the conference chose a player who went on to sit on the bench for her career at Michigan State.

“Hey, you guys gotta understand that this girl is next-level good,” Wells told the coaches. “You just don’t know it.”

As everyone continued to doubt her, Wells kept promising, “Just wait, just wait, just wait.”

That patience paid off in a big way. As the Chicago Red Stars’ top pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft, Cook has been a key contributor to the 2021 finalists as they look to make the playoffs in the final weekend of the regular season. The forward has two goals and three assists across 18 matches played and nine starts for the No. 7 team.

Wells, who had coached at the youth, college, Olympic development and USL W League levels, wasn’t new to spotting talent. He knew what it took to play for the top NCAA Division II women’s soccer program in the country, Grand Valley, conveniently located in their home state of Michigan. Four or five of his youth players had gone there, and some of them had won national championships. Wells believed that Cook could achieve that, too, and maybe reach an even higher level than the others.

He relayed that to Grand Valley coach Jeff Hosler in a phone call, and Hosler agreed to take a look at Cook.

So, the sophomore went to the ID camp. Hosler saw the potential, but Cook wasn’t as polished as some of the other players. To him, she seemed uncoordinated, her touches weren’t clean and she wasn’t strong or fast enough.

“I just don’t see it,” Hosler told Wells afterwards.

Cook went home and worked on exactly what Hosler suggested, focusing on her strength, speed and agility every single day through her junior year to prepare for the next opportunity. The goal was just to be the best version of herself. She had no intention of going back to Grand Valley. The message that they didn’t want her had been loud and clear.

Ava Cook, to the right of Todd Wells (center) in the black headband, hit a late growth spurt. (Courtesy of Todd Wells)

Throughout that year, though she might not have noticed it at the time, she was beginning to stand taller. At 5-foot-10, she was growing physically into her 17-year-old body while also becoming mentally tougher.

“She started to grow and it was like, watch. Now, watch what happens,” said Wells.

Cook was called up to play with the A team in a regional championship tournament. She scored in every game, and in the second match, her late goal saved the team from defeat.

Jeff Hosler was there. After Cook’s goal, Wells told Hosler, “I told you so.” The Grand Valley coach wasn’t convinced yet, but Wells could tell he was getting there.

Ahead of the next ID camp, in the winter of Cook’s junior year, Wells persuaded Cook to give it another go. When she finally agreed, he called Hosler: “I’m sending Ava back.”

That’s when everything changed. Hosler vividly remembers one play when Cook, with her back to a defender as she received a pass, effortlessly flicked it with the outside of her foot to get around her opponent.

“There’s not a lot of high school juniors at camps trying to pull that type of skill off,” he said.

Ten minutes into the camp, he called Wells. “I’m going to give this kid an offer tomorrow,” Hosler told him.

Cook and Hosler’s conversation at the end of that camp was completely different than their last. He had a vision for how she could fit into the program as a versatile forward who was dangerous in the air and could hit strikes from distance.

Grand Valley was the only school who gave Cook an offer, so she took it and set out to get even better.

Freshman year was about learning, mostly from a fellow striker named Gabby Mencotti, a senior who mentored Cook in reading the game and making decisions. By sophomore year, Cook was miles ahead of where she was in her first season, this time receiving Second Team All-American honors. As a junior, she helped the Lakers win a national championship while leading Division II in goals (29) and points (70) and being named a First Team All-American.

Cook had planned to play just four years of college. Going into her senior year, she was open to pursuing whatever professional opportunities presented themselves. Then COVID-19 hit, and the fall season of her senior year got moved to the spring. When the NCAA granted athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the canceled fall season, Cook began to have second thoughts about leaving school, especially since a fifth year would broaden her professional opportunities and maybe even open a door to the NWSL.

She thought about the choice for a long time.

When she finally settled on playing a fifth season, Hosler had taken a job at Michigan State, and Cook, who had developed astronomically under him, had another decision to make.

She reached out to Wells for advice.

“I’ve got a year of eligibility,” she told him. “Do I stay at Grand Valley or go to Michigan State?”

“That’s a dumb question,” Wells replied.

He sent her a text with exactly what she needed to do, numbering the steps one through four. Cook not only followed Wells’ advice, she manifested it, and made sure that every step along the way came true.

(Daniel Bartel/USA TODAY Sports)

1. Transfer to MSU

Cook entered her name into the transfer portal and called Hosler.

“Hey, it’s me again,” she said.

Coming to Michigan State wasn’t something that Hosler was going to let just any of his former players do. But Cook had the blend of pace, athleticism, size and humility. Her determination to grow never seemed to let up.

“Ava is one of those special people that you don’t get an opportunity to work with very often because of who she is,” Hosler said. “I truly love this kid, with everything that she stands for and who she is. I’m super proud of her.”

After a long conversation, Cook decided to take her chances on the Big Ten.

2. Do what you do

Cook went on to help the Spartans to their first Big Ten tournament since 2011. Playing over 1,000 minutes during the 2021 season, she led the team in goals (seven), assists (three), points (17), shots (77) and game-winning goals (three).

Starting all but one game, Cook earned Second Team All-Big Ten and United Soccer Coaches All-Region honors.

“Ava just never knew how great she could be until she just went up against the players that were the best ,and she’s like, ‘I’m here, and I’m doing my thing. Look what I can do,’” said Wells.

3. Apply for the NWSL Draft

With her teammates still in college this past spring, Cook watched a lot of NWSL and U.S. women’s national team games. Knowing most of the national team players were in the league, Cook felt the NWSL featured “truly some of the best soccer out there.”

“To be able to even get the chance to play in a league like that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.

Because of players like fellow Michigan native Bethany Balcer, who was the first NAIA player to sign with an NWSL club in 2019, she knew it was possible to carve out a successful professional career despite spending most of her college days outside of Division I.

“I think that not only me, but a lot of girls definitely look at her, especially in Michigan, and get a really good sense of hope,” Cook said of the OL Reign forward.

So, she applied for the 2022 draft but didn’t expect anything to come out of it. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in herself; she just didn’t want to be disappointed.

On the day of the draft, Cook was eating a slice of pizza, surrounded by family and friends, when she saw her name and picture appear on the TV screen.

Ava Cook, 18th overall to the Chicago Red Stars.

Everyone screamed. Cook nearly choked on her pizza, as her phone began blowing up with texts and calls.

“That is something I will never ever forget,” she said of draft day. “I was so thankful for everyone who was there and that I got to share that moment with them and everyone who reached out. It makes me so happy to think about.”

4. Play NWSL

Since joining the Red Stars, Cook has made nine starts and played 1,202 minutes in 22 games across all competitions. Her three assists led the league for the first half of the regular season, and she earned her first call-up to the U.S. U23 women’s national team in June.

Achieving the last item on Wells’ list only means that Cook is ready for a new set of goals. Right now, outside of making the playoffs with the Red Stars, she’s focused on improving her technical skills and soccer IQ and watching as many games on TV as she can. Her eyes are glued to players in positions that interest her. She watches their runs, what they do with the ball and how they move off of it.

Cook is 5-10 but still growing. Always growing. And other people’s expectations of her have increased accordingly.

“This is only the beginning for her because of the way she approaches things and the year-to-year growth she showed during my time with her,” Hosler said. “I know it will continue in the league.”

As Wells says, “Just wait, just wait, just wait.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

Smith and Swanson shine in action-packed NWSL weekend

sophia smith celebrates after a goal for the portland thorns
Sophia Smith's 27th-minute goal paved the way for Portland's first win of the season. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

USWNT regulars Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson furthered their cases for Olympic inclusion with their respective club victories on Saturday and Sunday.

After a roller coaster of a week that saw former Thorns head coach Mike Norris reassigned and a flurry of last-minute roster reshufflings as Friday's trade window closure loomed, the NWSL sprung to life over the weekend with standout performances from ninth-place Portland and third-place Chicago, among others.

After her blocked attempt at goal set up a volleying sixth-minute opener from veteran Christine Sinclair — now the only player in history to record a goal in all 11 NWSL seasons — Smith swiftly netted her own in the 27th minute off a breakaway run that eluded Houston's backline. The goal represented Smith's third of the season as well as her 35th for the Thorns, ultimately leading to the home side's first win of the season in a 4-1 routing of the Dash.

But that wasn't Smith's only stat of the evening. The star forward also lapped former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr to become the youngest player to reach 50 NWSL goal contributions across all games, chalking up 40 goals and 10 assists at the age of 23 years and 254 days.

"Obviously it feels good to get a win," said Smith in a post-match press conference. "But this is the standard the Thorns have always had. So a win is great, but a win is the expectation — we're hungrier than ever after the way we started."

170 miles up the road, Lumen Field similarly showcased some promising Olympic prospect footwork on Sunday. In Chicago's 2-1 victory over the lagging 13th-place Seattle Reign, striker Mallory Swanson racked up an impressive counterattack assist on fellow forward Ally Schlegel's fourth-minute goal. Swanson went on to find the back of the net herself before halftime, lacing an explosive ball into the top corner in the 31st minute, her second of the season after returning from a lengthy sidelining injury.

Speaking of injuries, fellow USWNT favorites Alex Morgan and Tierna Davidson were not as fortunate as their national squad teammates this weekend. Each exited their club matches early, Morgan with an ankle knock in San Diego's loss to Orlando and Davidson with an apparent hamstring incident early on in Washington's win over Gotham.

LSU takes first-ever NCAA gymnastics title

Kiya Johnson of the LSU Tigers reacts after winning the national championship during the Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships
Gymnast Kiya Johnson celebrates LSU's win at the NCAA Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

LSU came out on top at the 2024 NCAA women's gymnastics championship in Fort Worth on Saturday, besting Cal, Utah, and Florida to capture their first-ever title.

The Tigers' win was far from a landslide. LSU took the first rotation handily thanks to 2024 All-Around winner Haleigh Bryant's team-leading 9.9375 backed by four additional 9.9+ scores from her teammates. But Utah then responded with three strong beam performances of their own, causing the Red Rocks to slide confidently into second place by the end of the second rotation.

By the halfway point, all four teams fell within .288 points of one another before Utah overtook the pack with a dominant floor showing after three rotations. LSU then went on to ace the beam event with Konnor McClain's meet-leading 9.9625 score, coming away with the highest collective score ever awarded to the event in NCAA championship history. The achievement propelled the Tigers to victory, ensuring them the title after the final rotation.

"This team is full of individuals that have incredible character and integrity and love for each other and all the things you hear from coaches when they sit at a podium like this in a moment of victory, but I promise you it's a real thing," said LSU coach Jay Clark in a post-meet press conference. "I'm just so happy for them."

Contributing to Saturday's atmosphere of excitement was the absence of last year's champion and this year's heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners. Hot off earning the highest team score in NCAA history just last month, the top-ranked Norman squad suffered a shocking loss in the semifinals, where five major mistakes contributed to a third-place finish and a season-low team score of 196.6625.

With Oklahoma out, it was truly anyone's game.

"Every team was out there fighting for their lives — all four teams, it could have gone any of four ways out there," Clark told reporters. "As much as I feel for what happened to Oklahoma in the semifinals, I think it made for a championship that became so packed with emotion because every team out there believed they could do it. It was just tremendous."

LSU is now the eighth program in the sport's history to earn an NCAA women's gymnastic championship.
They share the honor with Georgia, Utah, UCLA, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

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