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Cooper Doesn’t Want Any More Broken Dreams

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This is Tawnee Cooper’s last stand.

After three injury-plagued seasons at UC Santa Barbara, the former Simi Valley High standout has shed her crutches and braces and is ready to salvage the final season of her basketball career.

“I better shine bright because this is it for me,” said Cooper, a 5-foot-9 senior forward who will turn 21 on Tuesday.

Cooper, who led Ventura County in scoring an unprecedented three times in high school, has seen one bad break after another since joining one of the nation’s rising programs.

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She missed the final 11 games of the 1998-99 season after sustaining a broken leg and partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in a Big West Conference game against Long Beach State on Feb. 5.

Santa Barbara would go on to win its fourth consecutive conference title and post a 26-4 record, climbing as high as No. 16 in the national rankings.

Cooper traveled with the team and watched from the sidelines.

It was an all-too-familiar script for Cooper, who missed the final eight games of her freshman season after breaking her wrist while diving for a loose ball.

“I was devastated last year,” she said. “To be told your season is over twice in three years, it really hits your heart.”

Cooper, The Times’ county player of the year as a junior and senior, has missed 30 games during her career. She also has been sidetracked by a stress fracture and a concussion.

“She’s had a whole bunch of freaky things happen to her,” said Coach Mark French. “We’re big on life lessons here, and all those injuries have helped Tawnee grow and mature.

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“She’s done a great job dealing with everything. I hope to be as mature as Tawnee when I’m 50.”

Of Santa Barbara’s top 10 players from last season, nine return, including All-American Erin Buescher.

Cooper might have to fight it out with junior Rachelle Rogers for the starting job at small forward. Rogers took over the position full time last season when Cooper went down.

“That stuff will take care of itself,” Cooper said of playing time. “I just want to make it through a whole season injury-free.”

French is expecting much more than that.

“I think we all feel like we have yet to see Tawnee’s maximum contribution to our program,” French said.

“The best is yet to come.”

Cooper was in the middle of a breakout season last winter, ranking third on the Gauchos in scoring with a 12.3 average.

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Then came a breakaway layup in the closing seconds of the first half against Long Beach State.

She was clothes-lined by Jackie Moore, former Long Beach Poly forward, who lost to Cooper and Simi Valley in the Southern Section playoffs in 1996.

“I never saw it coming,” Cooper said. “I knew I was done the second I landed.”

She spent six weeks on crutches, three months without putting any pressure on the leg and countless hours yearning to return to the court.

This summer, she received doctor’s clearance to play again. She went directly from the doctor’s office to the gym.

“If anything, I’ve learned to deal with adversity,” she said.

“Things may get frustrating, but it all depends on how you deal with them and what you make of it. I’m just ready to ball it up.”

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