Mansfield - It was June 13, 2009, when Arielle Cooper and her best friends walked off DeLuca Field in Stratford having accomplished the unthinkable.
The Fitch High School softball team won the Class LL state championship that night, 1-0 over top-ranked Masuk of Monroe and perhaps one of the best pitchers in state history in Rachele Fico, who had allowed only two runs previously during the season.
"That day I will never forget," Cooper, then the Falcons' senior third baseman said. "I bawled my eyes out with pure happiness."
Eastern Connecticut State University coach Diana Pepin watched that game, too, knowing that Cooper, who made a diving stop to her left with a runner on third base in the third inning, was going to play for her the following season.
"Raw potential," said Pepin, asked what she saw in Cooper. "A fiery kid. That kind of swagger."
This week, Cooper, a junior from Mystic, will begin play in her third NCAA tournament since arriving at Eastern, as the second-ranked Warriors (40-1) take on Lesley University in the regionals at 11 a.m. Thursday at ECSU.
Cooper, who has played third base since her freshman season for Pepin, has been to Division III College World Series two straight years. The Warriors were fifth last season.
Currently, Cooper holds a 32-game hitting streak, bettering the previous mark of 18 held by assistant coach Tammy Schondelmayer. That makes her 12 shy of the all-time Division III record of 44 games, set by Heather Bortz of Moravian in 2003-04.
Cooper was named Most Outstanding Player of the Little East Conference tournament on Saturday, as the Warriors won it for the third straight season. Last held without a hit on March 24 against the University of Chicago, Cooper is hitting .457 with 10 home runs and 38 RBI. She has 63 hits and a team-best 47 runs scored.
"Honestly, this year I'm surprised," said Cooper, who called it her best season of hitting. "I feel like it's a maturity thing. You find yourself. I know my role. I know what I'm supposed to do.
"I'm not a big stats person. I just come to play. I've been playing forever. I just take as much from that as I can."
Cooper's best friends on that Fitch team her senior year were outgoing pitcher Aubrey Latham and reserved shortstop Brittany Duclos.
"I need someone like that on my right side," Cooper said of being friends with Latham since the two were 9. "And then I had Brittany on my left side, who's quiet, who doesn't say 'boo.' I'm the happy medium."
Cooper, the daughter of former Fitch great Renee Khoury-Cooper - and the niece of Scott Khoury, who played baseball in the minor leagues with the Orioles and Indians - said she's always been a good athlete. She played in a Senior League World Series for the Pawcatuck Little League in 2007. She started out in the Mystic Little League, playing for Latham's father, Mark, whom she said will always be in her heart.
"But I never really worked at it," Cooper said. "I would go with my dad to shoot free throws and that's about it."
At Fitch, coach Kate Peruzzotti took over Cooper's senior year and walked into a circle of kids that had been playing together all of their lives and, well, maybe thought they knew a lot.
"She's another coach that helped me ... she came into Fitch and pretty much told us this is how it is and if we don't like it, too bad," said Cooper, who went through her senior season at Fitch without making an error.
"Definitely, in college you have to mature on your own. As an athlete, you have to be less stubborn and more open to criticism. Open your mind or you're not going to last."
Cooper is now 21 years old. At 5-foot-5, she has lost 20 pounds since high school, she said. She still doesn't make errors, only two this season for a fielding percentage of .978. She is one of Eastern's scholar-athletes and says she would love to coach after graduation, maybe at Fitch.
This weekend's task is to get back to the national tournament, to be held in Salem, Va. To do so, the Warriors have to get through a tough regional bracket, which includes No. 2 Tufts, No. 4 Ithaca and No. 5 Coast Guard Academy. Eastern's only loss this season was to Tufts on March 19, falling 4-2.
"It's something that you feel you accomplished something just by getting there," Cooper said of the round of eight. "Like, 'I have a chance to win a national title.' ... I can't get too excited or I'll make myself nervous. I just have to take every game for what it is."