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Golden and gloved, Zia Cooke earns glowing reviews in recruiting circles and beyond

Zia Cooke, who won a gold medal with USA Basketball earlier this month, averaged 22.6 points per game as a sophomore at Rogers. Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire

The thump, thump, thump on Zia Cooke's heavy bag blends in with the grunts and groans from the pro and amateur boxers who surround her in the Toledo, Ohio, PAL gym.

After landing 1,000 solid punches, she picks up a jump rope. Agility and endurance are important. Next she takes aim at the speed bag, delivering slap after slap to hone her hand-eye coordination.

Cooke, who will be a junior at Rogers High School in the fall, is not a boxer. But she trains like one nearly every Thursday and Sunday.

Where Cooke is a true heavy hitter is in women's basketball recruiting circles. A 5-foot-9 point guard, Cooke is the No. 14 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Terrific 25 for the 2019 class. She's fresh off a gold medal win with Team USA at the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The 16-year-old credits boxing for helping her stand out on the basketball court, and she credits her dad for introducing her to it.

"Boxing is way different training than basketball," Cooke said. "It takes more energy out of you than basketball."

She gets her toughness and love of sport largely from her brother, Stratman Cooke IV.

Stratman, 21, played junior college football as a linebacker before leaving sports to raise a family.

Growing up, he had no neighborhood friends to play basketball with in his backyard. Instead, during summer days, he would recruit his sister to help him train.

She wasn't exactly willing at first.

"When she was 9, I would train in my backyard on a broken rim," Stratman said. "I was like, 'Man, I really want a brother.'

"Zia would come outside in a dress, and I would make her come train with me."

One day, he caught Zia in the backyard, on her own, shooting long shots. From then on, brother and sister became inseparable. Whatever Stratman tried, Zia also tried, and that included tackle football.

From fourth through sixth grade, Cooke played against boys. In fifth grade, she became the starting quarterback for the Mid-City Colts, and she was so good that they retired her No. 17 jersey at the end of her Pop Warner career.

"Playing quarterback is like being a point guard -- it's basically your team, and you are controlling it," Cooke said. "It was fun playing with a group of boys."

On several occasions, Cooke showed her toughness, a trait she still displays while taking contact on the basketball court.

"One time, I got hit by a lineman, and I flew," Cooke said. "Another time, in practice, one of the boys was mad at me, and he hit me hard. He knocked the wind out of me, but I got back up."

Cooke isn't easily intimidated -- obviously -- and her fighting spirit was in full effect when she arrived at Rogers as a 14-year-old freshman. Despite playing on a loaded team that had reached the state championship game the prior season, Cooke earned a starting job right away. The four other starters were all seniors. Two signed with Michigan, one signed with Cincinnati and one signed with Toledo.

Cooke fit right in with all that talent, averaging 14.1 points on a team that was eliminated in the regional final on a shot at the buzzer. In a game against Cincinnati Woodward that season, she scored 41 points, which is still her career-high. As a sophomore this past season, Cooke averaged 22.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists on a young team that was unable to make it out of districts. Still, she was named the Toledo City League's co-player of the year.

Rogers coach Lamar Smith believes the upcoming season could be a big one for Cooke and his entire team, which returns every starter and has added talent as well.

"Zia is something special," Smith said. "I've known her since she started playing with my daughter in the fourth grade. Zia can be the No. 1 guard in the nation.

"She's a great athlete. I've seen her in football, throwing spirals, shaking people, making them miss. I've seen her box -- she can defend herself for sure. ... You name the sport, and Zia can bring it."

Cooke has also dabbled in soccer, softball and track. She runs cross country every year as a way to keep in top shape. It's not unusual to see her running in the rain, sprinting up and down hills and using a parachute attached to her back as a training device.

She flips tires to add strength, and she goes on daily two-mile training runs with her father, dribbling two basketballs simultaneously the whole time.

Cooke rarely takes a day off, and she credits her brother with teaching her about work ethic.

"I still look up to him to this day," said Cooke, who has a 3.5 GPA and dreams of becoming a sports commentator after her playing days are done. "He's the reason I started playing sports."

College coaches are grateful. In fact, when they started noticing her as a freshman, they asked Smith: "Who is this Russell Westbrook, Allen Iverson-type girl?"

They soon found out, and her confidence has only grown after a strong performance in Argentina. She averaged 10.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists in five games. She averaged 16.4 minutes per game as USA went 5-0.

She scored 12 points in a semifinal win over host Argentina and 15 points in the title game against Canada on June 11.

There's still room for improvement -- she averaged 2.0 turnovers and shot 54.2 percent from the foul line -- but college coaches drooling over her skills aren't about to nitpick.

Cooke has scholarship offers from just about every top program in the nation. Her top five, she said, is an ever-changing list. But, for the moment, she likes Connecticut, South Carolina, Ohio State, Tennessee and Maryland, in no particular order.

Of those five, only UConn has not offered her, but the Huskies are recruiting her, she said.

"The main thing is that I want a family-type atmosphere," Cooke said. "I should be able to come to my college coach for whatever reason, and we should be a family.

"I also want a coach who will make me better but let me be free to a certain extent -- not try to control my game."

Bryce McKey, who coaches her for his Sports City U club team, said Cooke has always been a slasher, attacking the rim and scoring in bunches.

But in Argentina, she showed her improved 3-point game, making 7-of-11 from distance against elite competition.

"Because she is so athletic, she has a scoring ability most girls don't have," McKey said. "She's an explosive leaper and very competitive."

McKey said her confidence is at an all-time high after Argentina. For Cooke, though, the biggest takeaway was winning the gold medal for her country.

"That was a dream come true," Cooke said. "I don't know how to explain it to this day. It feels like it didn't really happen, but I'm happy it did."