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.