By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - If a successful interview determines which Rhodes Scholarship finalists get to study at Oxford, Kasey Cooper has to like her chances.
As the face of Auburn softball during the program's best four-year run, Cooper has conducted hundreds of interviews.
"I think it's very helpful, because one of the first comments is, 'You're really good at being interviewed,'" Cooper said. "Athletics has prepared me for that, 100 percent. Having to be able to deal with, after a bad game, you're going to have to go interview. Being very confident and very supportive, and realizing that it's we, not me."
Cooper and fellow Auburn senior Matthew Rogers will be in Birmingham this weekend with a dozen other finalists from District 7, representing Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. After a dinner on Friday, the finalists will interview the next day before a selection committee announces two Rhodes Scholars from each of the 16 districts on Saturday evening.
Cooper prepared for her Rhodes interview just like she did for opposing pitchers during her All-American softball career. With diligence, including practice interviews through Auburn University's Honors College.
"Getting comfortable wearing a suit in an interview," Cooper said. "Getting comfortable being questioned by five people. And knowing your information before you go in the door."
With medical school and Olympic softball aspirations, the mechanical engineering major would pursue master's degrees in radiation biology and integrated immunology at Oxford, should she receive the Rhodes.
"I want to dive in deeper into the medical background because that's what I want to pursue and Oxford is the world's leader in immunology," she said. "Why not be taught by the best, and then be able to go to med school?"
Each of the finalists possesses an elite academic resume. Cooper, from Dothan, Alabama, boasts a 3.98 GPA in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. She plans to take the Medical College Admission Test next summer after graduating in May 2018.
Few of the finalists can match Cooper's athletic achievements. The SEC's all-time RBI leader led the Tigers to back-to-back Women's College World Series appearances while twice being named the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2016-17.
Cooper awarded the Elite 90 award in 2016.
"Athletics has provided me teamwork," Cooper said. "It's provided me the skill sets I need to go where I want to go. Academically, the professors were so willing to work with me, with my schedule. As long as you put in the effort, you put in the time, then they're going to work with you, because they want to see you succeed as well.
"So many people are willing to help you here. It's been one of the coolest experiences to know that me being in this position is not just because of my hard work and dedication, it's because of everyone around me providing myself with a group of people and a staff that are here to help me."
One of the members of Team Cooper, Dr. Paul Harris, associate director for national prestigious scholarships in the Honors College, helped guide Kasey through the application process.
Harris calls Cooper "a very well-rounded student who exhibited intellectual curiosity, both inside the classroom and in the research lab, and hard work and determination through her stellar athletic achievements."
When Cooper received the email that she was a Rhodes finalist, she forwarded the good news to Harris and Patrick Donnan, a 2013 Rhodes finalist at Auburn, even before sending to her parents and sister.
"It was awesome because I've learned so much about myself through this entire process," Cooper said. "Being a finalist and getting to this stage is quite an honor and I'm very honored and humbled and know that I wouldn't be here without the support of Auburn Athletics and Engineering.
"I remember going in a couple times to speak with [Director of Athletics] Jay Jacobs and he would always provide me with so much guidance and support. I was really thankful that Jay provided me with that support and he was always there to talk. Jay was so great for the athletes because we would have luncheons monthly to talk about what's going on and he always wanted to be there to make this the best college for the best athletes. I want to thank him for everything he's done for me, for the program and for Auburn."
If Cooper wins, she intends to continue training in the United Kingdom for a spot on the U.S. softball team at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
"It would be fun to train in a different environment with a different set of girls," she said. "I only had this type of training for four years. Before that, we had a field, you had a tee, you had some balls, and that was it. That's all you had. It's just being innovative with getting the most out of what you have."
Cooper hopes to become Auburn's first Rhodes Scholar since Jordan Anderson, the captain of Auburn's swim team, won in 2009.
Created in 1902, the Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international fellowship, given to students with proven academic achievement, integrity, leadership and respect for others. While applicants are not required to be athletes, "physical vigor" - enabling Rhodes Scholars "to make effective contributions to the world around them" - is a necessity.
Auburn's four Rhodes Scholars include Anderson, Hugh Long (1949), Ed Gentle (1978) and Susan Karamanian (1981).
By Saturday night, Kasey Cooper, who wore No. 13 while starring for the Tigers, could be No. 5.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer