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Originally published April 28, 2013 at 8:05 PM | Page modified April 29, 2013 at 12:33 PM

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Lacrosse star Cooper Woolston never lets prosthetic leg stop him

Senior Cooper Woolston is one of the key reasons Nathan Hale is expected to contend for a state Division II championship.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Keep your eyes up, and notice his exceptional stick work.

Observe the lean player in perfect position for a quick catch and shoot — and another goal for Nathan Hale High School's boys lacrosse team.

Watch how he orchestrates the game, a clear leader on the field.

Then, if you must, look lower. See the slight limp as he runs. Detect the difference in his calves, the left clearly larger than the right.

Cooper Woolston would rather not acknowledge it, but yes, that's his prosthetic left leg. He has worn various kinds since his deformed foot was amputated at age 1. It doesn't define him or deter him or make him feel different, so please don't treat him that way, especially on the lacrosse field.

"I work hard not to be singled out, to be just another player," Woolston said.

But he is not just another player. Woolston, a senior at University Prep, is one of the best in the area and a key reason Nathan Hale — a club team that also includes players from U-Prep and Ingraham — is 11-2-0, leads the Metro Conference and is expected to contend for the Division II state championship next month. He has been invited to play at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

This is a kid who has always done whatever he sets his mind to.

"He is a person who always has put himself out there and taken chances to challenge himself to see what he can do," said his father, V. Woolston.

Cooper's need to be active prompted his parents to have his foot amputated at an early age.

"You could tell he always wanted to go," said his mother Robyn. "He got his first prosthetic and he's never stopped."

With a prosthetic, the only downside was his lack of speed, but Cooper always found a way around it. He played organized baseball, trying different positions — even catcher — to best suit his limited range. He learned to pull the ball down the third-base line to give himself more time to run to first.

He played soccer, then became a referee.

When baseball began boring him in fourth grade, Cooper saw a neighbor playing lacrosse and was intrigued.

"I saw it the first time and wanted to try it," he said. "It was different. It was interesting and it lent itself better to my skill set. But it was hard at first, a lot harder than baseball."

So he practiced hard, until the stick was like a baton and he was the director of the band. His parents and two older sisters dealt with the constant bang, bang, bang of the ball against the garage door. He studied the game, watching every time it was on TV.

"I kind of do things 100 percent if I'm doing them," Cooper said.

He was the point guard on the freshman basketball team at University Prep and has played tennis for the Class 1A Pumas the past two seasons, when the sport was moved to the fall and didn't conflict with lacrosse. He teaches snowboarding classes and conducts tours at the Seattle Aquarium.

Early his freshman year Cooper finally decided to undergo surgery he'd been hesitant about. He had about five more inches of his leg amputated, which allowed him to go to a higher-tech prosthetic that increased his mobility and made it easier to find better-fitting shoes — and snowboarding boots.

"It was a functional decision," Cooper said. "The options of what kind of prosthetics I could use exploded."

Lacrosse can be a physical game and he breaks a prosthetic about once per year, usually in practice. But last season he came up limping after getting in a pile against Garfield.

"Coach, I think I broke my leg," Cooper said.

"Your good one or your bad one?" coach Kris Snider asked.

"My bad one."

Cooper never missed a practice. The next day he wore a new prosthetic, which runs about $10,000 but is mostly covered by insurance.

Snider, who now is Hale's assistant under his son Drew, started coaching Cooper in grade school and his skills with the stick, not the prosthetic, first caught his eye.

"What gives him an edge is he learned how to handle his stick at a young age," Kris Snider said. "He's always understood the sport and the spacing. He just got it."

That stood out to Swarthmore coach Pat Gress when Woolston attended his camp last summer.

"He's learned to adapt and overcome," said Gress, who didn't know Woolston wore a prosthetic at first. "It's clear he plays the game a little more cerebrally ... I definitely noticed he had a lacrosse IQ."

Cooper sets an example on the field, going hard in every drill and is an inspiration to teammates. As his good friend Ben Joers says, if Coop can do it, so can I. Cooper is second on his team in goals with 30 and has nine assists.

He impressed Lakeside coach Chris Hartley when the teams met this season. Hartley said he likely would not have noticed Cooper's prosthetic if he hadn't read about him in a national lacrosse magazine this spring.

"Truthfully, you can't tell the difference," Hartley said. "He's got all the skills that a lacrosse player needs to have."

Kris Snider admits he wasn't sure Cooper would be able to excel as competitors got older and stronger.

"I'm not sure you should turn out next year," he once told him.

Cooper turned out anyway.

"I'd rather make decisions based on what I want to do rather than what I should do or what I'm expected to do," he said.

Gress can't promise him a position on the field at Swarthmore, a Division III college.

"It's unchartered waters for me, so I'll see," Gress said. "he certainly has good stick skills. He can catch and throw well and he knows the game, but it's like any other freshman. We'll figure out what he can do and where he might be able to help us."

Don't bet against him, Kris Snider said.

"I don't put it past him at all," the coach said. "I'm a believer after all these years."

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

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