Cassie Cooke is hardly old enough to sit in the front seat of a car, or so her Westminster teammates joke. On the basketball court, however, the freshman shows maturity beyond her years.
"I know some of them might have thought that I wasn't strong enough to be on varsity and I wasn't experienced enough, just being 14 years old, but I try to show them that I can hang with the big dogs, too."
Cooke, a 5-foot-8 guard, can certainly do that. She is averaging 12.4 points per game, fifth in the county, and 4.2 rebounds. She is fourth in the county in three-pointers at 34 percent (19-for-56).
Early in the season, Cooke had 16 points in a victory over then-No. 4 Winters Mill. The Owls (10-6, 5-0 county) were down by as many as 14 in the third quarter, but Cooke scored seven points during a four-minute stretch early in the fourth for a 67-61 upset.
"There was a big crowd, and I wasn't scared at all, I was just there to play," Cooke said of the win over the Falcons, a Class 2A state semifinalist last season.
"Winters Mill being right around the corner is always a problem because they get so much more publicity than we do. But we're not really worried about that. We just want to make each other happy and show that we're not here for nothing. We're here to go to states."
Cooke has had one of the best guards in the county, Westminster senior Brianne Sims, a first-team All-County selection, to learn from. Sims is fourth in the county in scoring (13.8 points per game) and leads the county in three-point shooting at 63 percent (26-for-41).
"I see myself being [Sims] when I'm a senior - being someone to depend on when we need the winning shot," Cooke said.
Cooke already has showed that she can be depended on. After Sims scored 17 points in the win over Winters Mill, opposing teams have been focused on stopping her, which has put more pressure on Cooke.
"All the coaches that we play watched [the Winters Mill] game and have been keying on [Sims]) big time," said Jerry Georgiana, in his second year as coach of the Owls. "They've been focusing on her so much that they don't even want her to touch the ball. Then Cassie takes over and tries to get her the ball.
"[Cassie] was accepted right away. She brings a lot of confidence. Even though she's a ninth-grader, she handles the ball well and she's a scorer, which makes a big difference and takes the pressure off Brianne Sims."
So far, Cooke has been up to the challenge of making game-changing plays. Against Thomas Johnson on Jan. 13, Cooke hit a basket to send the game into overtime, and then hit a three-pointer to send the game into a second overtime before the Owls fell, 80-75. Cooke finished with 19 points.
"[Cooke has] brought the spark that we needed this year," Sims said. "She's a team player, but when something needs to be done, she can do it."
Against Century a week later, Cooke took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of her 14 points to lead Westminster to a come-from-behind victory, 50-47.
"She has that attitude about her. Reckless abandonment, I guess, or wanting to take control of the game," Georgiana said. "She has a lot of confidence in her, and for a ninth-grader to have that, it is a coach's dream."
Although she is only a freshman, Cooke has years of experience playing basketball. She sank her first basket when she was 3 and was playing organized basketball at 7.
"I started on a boys team, but I never got the ball, so I had to work a lot harder than everybody else did because I was the only girl on the team," she said. "But once I got to [the Amateur Athletic Union], I was on an all-girls team playing against all girls and it was that much easier."
She was turned on to the sport by her father, Phil Popielski, now an assistant basketball coach at McDaniel College.
"I always went to the gym with him because he coached down at Meade, and I've been dribbling and shooting since then," Cooke said.
"If it weren't for my dad, I wouldn't have even ever touched a basketball. I just would have been just your average girl."