Loyola athletes talk plans after graduation


Torrie Shuff

Senior mass communication major Brittany Cooper stands holding a volleyball with her graduation cap and gown. Cooper was a member of both the indoor and beach volleyball teams.

Eve McFarland, Staff Writer

As graduation approaches, many student-athletes are looking forward to their next steps while reflecting on some of their unforgettable experiences at Loyola.

Brittany Cooper, a mass communication senior who is on the indoor and beach volleyball teams, said she is excited to see what the future holds for her and where this new chapter takes her.

“It’s both exciting and then also scary at the same time, you know, leaving behind what I have come accustomed and used to the last four years,” Cooper said.

During her four years, she said she has watched her teammates grow on and off the court, bonding through thick and thin. Traveling with the team allowed them to create a strong family bond. Just this past year alone, they were stranded and then had to sleep together in the airport, which only strengthened their connection, Cooper said.

Their relationship shined as the athletic department added its first official beach volleyball team in the 2023 season. She said that being a part of this team, and placing third place in their first Sun Conference tournament, made a statement for the program.

Cooper finished her career at Loyola with over 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs, putting her 9th in the Wolf Pack record books with exactly 1,358 digs. She also finished in the top 25 in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in service aces and aces per set.

“It makes me really love that I came to Loyola and was given this opportunity, and I’m really grateful for it,” Cooper said. “I definitely couldn’t have achieved any of it if it weren’t for all my teammates and my coaches who have continuously encouraged me and been there, and been my cheerleaders for me.”

While she does not see herself continuing to play professionally, she will play the sport she loves just for fun. Cooper has been coaching at Pelican State and wants to continue that journey. As a coach for younger children, it has been her pleasure to watch them grow into better players and people, she said.

“I’m just trying to teach the game I love to younger kids and really help them find that passion that I have for the game,” she said.

Taylor Thomas is another graduating senior, but she plans to stick around for one more season. Student athletes in the NAIA were given an additional eligibility year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a finance and management double major on the women’s basketball team, she said she will be using her last year of eligibility to foster long-lasting relationships.

“I think I am just going to enjoy my fifth year. You know, it is going to be my last time playing basketball competitively, I think, after this year,” Thomas said. “I don’t really have any plans to go play professionally, so I am just going to cherish every moment because I won’t get this back.”

In the 2022-2023 season, the women’s team had a record of 27-3. Thomas earned her 1,000th career point and finished this season with 180 steals in her career, the 10th-most in program history. She was named Southern States Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year her junior season.

Thomas expressed how important it will be to build relationships next year with the incoming recruits. Her contribution to the game was the result of her hard work and the chemistry she developed with previous teammates.

The women’s team was upset over their defeat in the first round of the NAIA National Tournament, but Thomas said she is using that to motivate herself and the team next year to keep working hard. Her genuine care for her teammates with the highest standard, sets the bar for them to achieve their goals, she said.

“I know that you can do better, and I can do better, we all can do better,” she said.

Going into the next season, Thomas has made it clear what her goals are, “I don’t want anything but a championship ring for my last season. That’s all I want. I want to win,” she said.

Michael Harden, a graduate transfer from Southern University and A&M College, has used up all of his eligibility but plans to continue his education at Loyola to finish his Master’s Degree in finance and minor in accounting.

He knew he was presented with a great opportunity that he couldn’t pass up to play for the defending NAIA men’s basketball national champions, he said.

Harden said he never doubted himself and felt prepared from his previous years of playing. His hard work and confidence drove him to achieve his dream goal of playing college basketball.

“I just wanted to accept the challenge. Seeing those guys do what they did, it drove me to want the same thing. I just wanted to be a part of something like that,” he said.

Harden earned SSAC All-Conference first team and finished with the eighth most steals in a single season in Loyola history with 61. He said it was reassuring knowing that he’s capable of doing something and able to go out there to accomplish it.

At Loyola, he created close relationships with the coaches and players. He shared that he and head coach Donald Reyes have a lot in common. Reyes was in his corner, having Harden’s best interest in his heart. Assistant coach Javan Felix brought their team to the next level by teaching the team based on his past experience of playing basketball professionally. And assistant coach Andrew Fava winning the NAIA National Championship in 2022 placed the needed materials on the table to achieve that same goal.

“Having those types of guys in your corner and actually wanting the best for you and wanting to see you succeed is priceless,” he said.

He feels that he can call his teammates his brothers, and the controversy they faced only made them closer. Harden said he looks forward to seeing what they achieve next season.

Moving forward, Harden said he is going to prepare for any opportunities to continue his career in basketball professionally. Coach Reyes and Felix have pointed him in the direction of agents to get that process started.