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Full Circle

Charlene Cook returned to her hometown for her BU Hall of Fame induction

October 19, 2012


Full Circle

Synopsis: Charlene Cook, a 1994 graduate of nearby Johnson City High School, starred on the Binghamton softball team in the mid-1990’s. She returned to her hometown to visit family, take part in the alumni game and most important, be inducted into the Binghamton Athletic Hall of Fame.

by David O’Brian
Binghamton Athletic Media Relations Office

It’s Saturday, October 13, 2012. Charlene Cook is coming up to bat at Binghamton University’s new softball complex. She is taking part in the softball team’s annual Homecoming Alumni game. Having graduated in 1998, Cook settles into the batter’s box, eying current Bearcat pitcher Rhoda Marsteller in the pitcher’s circle. It is the third inning, and Cook is just now entering the game.

At first glace, the scene appears rather ordinary. Many Binghamton athletic alums flock back to campus each October to take part in alumni games and revisit the place they called home during college. For Cook, however, this was no ordinary day. Less than two hours before her at-bat, she was inducted into the Binghamton Athletic Hall of Fame for her standout pitching career back in the mid-1990s. After posing for photos, she quickly changed into her softball gear and arrived at the field during the second inning.

As was the case growing up, Cook spent this past October 13th with her family. All of them were at the ceremony, including her parents and husband. Her brother even made the trip from Florida. Three of her former teammates made it to both the ceremony and the alumni game afterwards.

For Charlene Cook, this Homecoming was the culmination of a historic career she had at Binghamton. It was a career that began less than five miles from campus.

Growing Up in the Southern Tier

Cook grew in nearby Johnson City and played sports at an early age. She latched onto softball and was on some travel teams. Even early in her career, Cook’s family played an active role in her athletic pursuits.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better support system in my parents,” she said. “They were always there to support and encourage me. My dad caught me all the time when I practiced pitching. He taught me the game, from the basics to which pitches to throw, how to be a good sport and most importantly to not let umps see your emotions when they made a bad call. My mom was there as my cheerleader, I could always hear her in the stands cheering me on. She did actually catch me once too (and lived to tell about it). I can’t emphasize to you enough how important they were for my career in softball and in every aspect of my life.”

Cook starred at nearby Johnson City High School, where she graduated in 1994. The Wildcats were a successful program that won the state title her freshman year.  Those years not only provided Cook the chance to meet new people but also play with members of her extended family.

“I was lucky enough to play with two of my cousins, which was great,” She said. “Alycia was on the team my freshman year and Rachel my junior and senior years. It was a really fun time because you make so many friends and meet different people.”

In Cook’s junior year, she had to play against a talented player from nearby Owego High School. Her name was Michelle Burrell, who would one day become the head coach of the Binghamton University softball program.

“Owego was not one of our tougher competitors until I was a junior,” Cook said. “This was when Michelle was on the team. They really became tough to beat. I remember not looking forward to pitching to her. She was not easy to get out and was a pretty disciplined hitter. We also tried to avoid hitting the ball to her she did not make many defensive mistakes.”

Burrell would go on to a standout college career at the University of Maryland. Cook, meanwhile, did not go far after she graduated from Johnson City. The affordability of Binghamton University plus the chance to stay close with her family were the perfect incentives for her to stay local.

“I chose Binghamton for a couple of reasons,” she said. “I didn’t want to go too far away from my family. My brother was still in high school and I wanted to see him play as much as I could. Plus it allowed my family to come watch me play. I was able to keep the support system I grew up with.  I also chose Binghamton because it is so affordable. I was able to live at home and help my mom out and get a great education at the same time.”

First Impressions

For almost any college athlete, one of the most lasting memories they have is when they meet one of their teammates for the first time. For members of the Binghamton softball program, that was particularly true with Cook.

Sherri Rogers was the captain of the 1995 softball team. Nearly two decades later, she still remembers the first time she met Cook.

“I was a junior at the time and would be her new catcher,” she said. “We clicked from day one.  (Charlene) was a fighter and a competitor, but she also had a big heart.  I believed in her and her abilities from that very first day.  I liked when she got mad or angry because it only made her better.”

Another upperclassman who got to know Cook well was Amanda Schilling. Like Rogers, she had played a pivotal role in the team’s success the previous two years.

“What was interesting about Charlene is that for as fierce as she was on the field with a take-no-prisoners attitude, she was a supportive and charismatic personality off the field,” she said. “Charlene was strongly connected with her family and friends.  She was always ready to laugh.  We were only teammates for two years, but in that short time I grew to appreciate her dichotomous personality, fun-loving off the field and fierce on the field.”

Holly Brown was the assistant coach when Cook came to Binghamton as a freshman. She was elevated to the head coach position in 1996. By the time she stepped down 11 years later, she was the winningest coach in program history.

“I remember when I first met Charlene,” she said. “I was impressed by her maturity and competitiveness.  Being that I had just graduated from college and was serving in my first year of coaching, I knew what it meant to have the senior mentality.  I was struck immediately that as a freshman Char had this same aura about her.  She knew how to give it her all every game and she did.  She understood the team aspect of the sport and also had the ability to push her teammates to be the best they could be so early in her own career.”

There was, however, one Binghamton coach who was no stranger to Charlene. Pitching coach Ron Decosse coached at a rival high school when Cook was at Johnson City. After years of coaching against Cook, he was now able to work with her.

“I knew how good Charlene was because I had the misfortune of having to coach against her when she was in high school,” he said. “It was usually either her team or our team who advanced to the State High School tournament. So, needless to say, I was thrilled when she arrived on campus - though it was difficult losing the competitive spirit we shared toward each other.”

A Run of Excellence

When Cook arrived on campus, the Binghamton Athletic Department was in the midst of a decade in which it would become one of the most successful NCAA Division III athletic programs in the nation. The softball program would go on to be a significant part of that run of excellence during Cook’s four years with the team.

John Hartrick, who has been Binghamton University’s Sports Information Director since 1991, got to witness the transformation of the athletic department first hand.

“The mid-1990s were an exciting time to be involved with Binghamton athletics, he said. “With increased funding, dynamic leadership from Director of Athletics Joel Thirer and a crop of outstanding and passionate young head coaches, our teams were very strong. In softball, we were just starting to build momentum when Charlene arrived on campus.”

“The 1990s were a special time for all sports at Binghamton University,” Brown said. “I remember feeling a sense of camaraderie and a sincere interest by other coaches and teams for the success of the department. There are still coaches that I talk and spend time with from those years.  We reflect on the support that we displayed for one another as well as how close the athletes were to each other.  These bonds and respect for one another were real and have created relationships that still exist today.”

With Cook on board, the softball team advanced to the NCAA Division III Tournament four straight years. The Colonials won the SUNYAC title 1995 and were ranked No. 10 in the nation. They were also nationally ranked the following three years. East Gym Field, where the team played on campus, had become the home of a powerhouse.

“The first two words that pop in my head when I think of those teams are commitment and teamwork,” Cook said. “We worked really hard and were committed to making the program a team that people did not want to play. We had extra weight training, captain’s practices and hitting sessions. The teamwork was huge as well. We all got along really well, not just on the field but off the field as well. If someone was down, there was always someone there to pick them up.”

Individually, Cook’s imprint on the program was huge. By the time she graduated, she had set the program records for wins, strikeouts and ERA. While some of her records have since been broken, she remains the only three-time Regional All-American in program history on any NCAA level.

As those around her point out, she had a demeanor on the mound that drove her to be the best she could be.

“Charlene was the type of competitor that you always wanted on your team, and certainly in the pitcher’s circle,” Rogers said. “She was tough when she needed to be and could stare you down.”

“She was a fierce competitor and a real bulldog on the mound,” Decosse said. “Her game face showed her determination, and her ‘Don’t mess with me’ attitude.  She occasionally took exception to batters who crowded the plate, and had no difficulty claiming the inside part of the plate.”

“Charlene always struck me as a no-nonsense athlete,” Hartrick said.  “Like many Binghamton-area athletes in other sports, she seemed to have an edge to her and a work rate that was superior to others. In a time when it was just becoming acceptable for female athletes to bleed their sport and be ultra-competitive, she was just that. When she pitched, she had an intensity that was obvious.”

Strong Bonds

Four years after Cook graduated from Binghamton, she married Mike Meehl. The two of them dated during high school and college (he went to Cornell) and married in 2002.

“Mike and I have known each other since second grade and he has always been someone I can talk to about anything and everything,” Cook said. “He was like my security blanket during my playing career. He was always there.”

One of the biggest instances of Meehl’s support during college came away from the playing field.

“I remember one time I had to write a paper and Binghamton didn’t have the book I needed in their library. Cornell had the book, so I hopped in my car to drive up to Cornell. Well my car broke down. Mike drove all the way to Johnson City from Cornell to get me and drive me up there to do my research and drive me back. If that’s not love I’m not sure what is.”

Cook and Meehl currently live in Lebanon, New Hampshire. They have two boys, Zachary (age seven) and Grady (age four). Cook works part time at a paint and decorating store.

As for her athletic family, Cook and the rest of her Binghamton teammates remain very close.

“I am still friends with all of those girls,” she said. “With social media like Facebook, it’s easy to keep in touch. Two of them are two of my best friends, Amy George and Kerri Mentz. They were both in my wedding and I was in theirs. Amy is also my youngest son’s Godmother.”

While Cook remains very close with her softball teammates, she has also been able to reconnect with the current Binghamton coaches and program. Although she never knew Michelle Burrell personally, Cook was excited when Binghamton named her former high school opponent as its new coach in 2010. Burrell has since led the squad to three straight seasons with at least 22 victories.

“I knew she would do a great job,” she said. “She’s recruiting really well and working on building up the program. She has brought the team a long way in the short time she’s been here. It’s also really great because she is local which I think is great for Binghamton’s relationship with the local community.”

Since Burrell became the head coach at Binghamton, Cook has returned each fall for the team’s alumni game. She has gotten to know her former high school opponent better and has been able to follow the team’s progress.

“It has been a pleasure getting to know Charlene,” Burrell said. “She has been a constant at our alumni games the last three years.  Her continued support of the program is very much appreciated.”

This year marked Cook’s fourth straight appearance in the alumni game. She has already had one of the most memorable days of her life when she stepped into the batter’s box to face Marsteller. Her at-bat, however, was not the most memorable part of her day as she hit into an inning-ending double play.

Cook and her fellow alums laughed off the misfortune. One player even said the umpire got the call wrong. In the dugout afterwards, however, Cook was able to reflect not just on the weekend, but the chance to play at the new facility that Binghamton now calls home.

“Seeing everyone again has been terrific,” she said. “Playing on the new field for the first time is a great way to end the weekend. Just being out on this field makes me wonder what our team could have done if we had it when we played. Who wouldn’t want to come here and play? It seems like a no brainer to me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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