Cooper Merrill Makes the Most of his KU Experience
May 13, 2011
As graduation nears for Kansas senior student-athlete Cooper Merrill he and those close to him have begun to look back at his time at KU. Some remember his early collegiate successes in his freshman and sophomore years, others his great comeback from injury last season. Merrill likes to reminisce about his victory at this year’s Kansas vs. Missouri dual. However his coach, Tom Hays, has a somewhat unorthodox fondest memory of his four-year pupil.
One day at practice, as the team was preparing for another grueling workout, Coach Hays noticed one of his female vaulters had brought a guitar with her to practice in preparation for a music class she would have later that day. Coach Hays naturally told her she needed to start playing right then in front of her teammates. After sufficiently embarrassing his athlete, Coach Hays began hearing what sounded like a professional guitarist strumming away. It was Cooper Merrill who had pulled out the guitar on his own and was putting on a show for his teammates. Even though Coach Hays was amazed at Merrill’s musical talents, he wasn’t surprised at all.
“Cooper picked up that guitar and he was just unbelievable,” Coach Hays explained. “He really has some gifts outside of track. He’s so talented not only in the pole vault but in a lot of other areas. It’s amazing.”
Merrill came to KU from Leawood, Kan., where he attended Blue Valley High School. He excelled in as many activities as possible including playing for the football team as an All-District wide receiver and was an honor roll student all four years of high school. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of his sophomore year when he first picked up the pole vault.
“I had always been a pretty athletic kid. Some of my cousins pole vaulted, which perked my interests a bit,” Merrill said of how he got his start in the field event. “I really got into it at the end of my sophomore year. It was pretty boring at the beginning so I left and didn’t come back until the last couple meets and that’s when I really caught on.”
Merrill caught on quickly. He won the Eastern Kansas League (EKL), district, regional and Kansas 6A state championships his junior and senior years. He was also named to the all-Johnson County first team and all-Sun County first team in 2006 and 2007. Merrill’s accomplishments quickly got the attention of KU pole vault coach Tom Hays. Little did Hays know how much Merrill would excel in areas other than track after coming to Lawrence.
“Cooper was the state’s best jumper when we got him out of high school and he’s lived up to everything that we’ve taught him and then some,” said Coach Hays. “He’s really a blue collar worker and does everything we tell him. This year it’s exciting to watch how much he’s succeeded. When you least expect it, Cooper is going step up and fill in when you need him most.”
It was an easy decision for Merrill when Kansas came calling. Both his parents attended KU and raised him as a die-hard Jayhawk fan, taking him to dozens of football and basketball games. It didn’t take him long to decide that Lawrence would be his college home.
“I’ve been a massive Jayhawk fan since I was born,” said Merrill. “I love KU and everything about it. I was pretty familiar with Lawrence and I’ve known a lot of people that have gone here beside my parents. Once I started getting recruited by KU, I got really excited about the opportunity.”
After arriving in Lawrence, Merrill didn’t resign himself to just focusing on the pole vault. He joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and quickly got involved in other campus groups. Even with a busy schedule, Merrill still excelled in the classroom and his business marketing major. He was All-Big 12 academic first-team selection three-straight years and will be graduating as a member of the Athletic Director’s honor roll.
“That’s really one of the things that he brings to the table,” Coach Hays explained. “He’s such a well-rounded individual and he brings every aspect of life to the team, not just his athletic skill.”
Coach Hays not only values Merrill’s lofty achievements off the track but also the personality he brings to the team. Whenever there is a nervous atmosphere among his teammates, Hays says Merrill is always ready to ease the tension.
“When everything is tense he adds that little comment or his personality pops up and it really relaxes our guys,” Hays explained. “He’s the guy that is always calm and relaxes the atmosphere for everyone.”
Merrill admits he’s a “goofball” and tries makes light of things on a regular basis around his teammates. He attributes it to his experience with different activities in college and how he is able to see track from a different perspective than some of his teammates who perhaps put too much pressure on themselves.
“Since I’ve been doing so many other things beside track in college it has really helped me see the big picture,” said Merrill. “Even though track is super important, it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t go how we planned.”
No matter how Merrill has helped the team, whether it is in the overall point standings or just keeping the mood light, he has had a college career that many envy. He has taken on numerous responsibilities within his fraternity and was even a teacher’s assistant in a marketing class this past year, all the while keeping his own grades in top form. It has been a busy four years for Merrill but he says he would not have traded the experience for anything.
“Through those experiences I’ve learned a lot as far as time management and organization,” said Merrill. “At the same time it was little busy for me but I wouldn’t have traded it because I made some great memories and met some great people and learned so many valuable skills. None of that would have happened if I wouldn’t have been as active.”
With his classes and other extra-curricular activities winding down, Merrill has put the brunt of his efforts toward ending his pole vault career on a high note. He currently ranks No. 53 in the NCAA and needs just mere centimeters to move into the top-48 that is needed to compete at the national meet in June.
“I’ve been on the verge of a big-time jump for the past couple weeks,” Merrill explained. “I’m ready for a really great jump. I’m really excited and eager to jump this weekend at the conference meet. It will be the perfect place for me to jump high and help my team, as well as move on to the national meets. It’s going to be the biggest meet of my life.”
No matter how Merrill finishes this weekend or in future meets, his time at Kansas has been a huge success. Whether in the classroom or in the pole vault pits, Merrill knows his time at Kansas has been special.
“I’ve really valued my experience and wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Merrill concluded. “I feel really blessed to have been able to jump here and to have had such a great experience.”