Runs in the family: Cooper Jeffcoat follows in mom’s footsteps, breaks records for Oak Mountain track

Published 10:29 am Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – After the run of his life where he finished third in the state in the indoor 800-meter run, Cooper Jeffcoat ran to one person: his mother Jessica.

As the time of 1:55.54 flashed across the Birmingham CrossPlex scoreboard, she gave her son the news: he had broken the Oak Mountain High School record as just a sophomore.

“I didn’t know if I was going do it, so when it did happen, I wasn’t 100 percent sure I did it because the time that I beat was very close to the time I ran, so I didn’t know for a little bit, and my mom was like, Oh, you broke the record, by the way,’” Cooper said. “And I was so pumped because I genuinely didn’t think I broke it when I first ran it.”

It was a special moment for both mother and son, but especially for Jessica, one of the first Oak Mountain track runners who coached her son through middle school and got to see her son’s hard work culminate in a record-setting time.

“It was just such an overwhelming feeling, just the culmination of both of us working so hard to get him to this point and Cooper’s hard work paying off,” Jessica said.

The school-record run was just the latest chapter in their special relationship as their familial bond has grown deeper through their shared love of running while Cooper grows into one of the fastest rising talents in the state of Alabama.

Following her footsteps

While Cooper has blossomed as a runner, he didn’t always compete in the sport despite his mother being a runner. When he was younger, Cooper played soccer in hopes that he could play it in college.

“I always wanted to do a sport in college because my mom did one and I thought that was super cool,” Cooper said. “And before running, I played soccer, and I didn’t think I was ever going to be good enough to play soccer in college.”

However, Jessica didn’t allow him to run heavily when he was a kid to protect his growing legs and make sure he didn’t burn out if he ever took up the sport. But late in elementary school, she started to see undeniable signs that he could be a talented runner.

“He would beg us to let him do a 5K because I was running one and so I would enter him just for fun and he would go out and just destroy it with no training,” Jessica said. “And I just knew he was going to be such a great runner, so around fifth grade I started talking to him about maybe us backing off the soccer and focusing on it.”

By his own admission, Cooper was undersized and not as talented in soccer as his peers. However, it wasn’t until when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down team sports when he was in sixth grade that she invited him to start running with her and the wheels started to turn in his brain.

“I was like, ‘Hey, you want to go on some runs? We’ll do cross country in seventh grade,’” Jessica said. “And he was so excited about it. And back then I could keep up with him, so all during that summer of COVID, we would run almost every day together and prepare for seventh grade cross country, and that’s when he made the decision on his own that he wanted to quit soccer and just focus on running.”

And so began a new part of their relationship built by their shared love of running.

Jessica was one of Oak Mountain High School’s first runners in school history as she came over from Pelham for the school’s first year and helped build the program from the ground up.

She remains in Oak Mountain’s record books 25 years into the program’s history and was also one of the school’s first college athletes when she ran track at Mississippi State.

She said the growth she has seen from Oak Mountain in those two-and-a-half decades is nothing short of amazing.

“When I ran cross country, we could not afford one of our girls getting injured because we only had seven girls on the team, and you need five to make a team and two for tiebreakers,” Jessica said. “And now, you’re looking at 25 to 30 girls on a team. When we started, we didn’t even have a track until our senior year. The facilities are so nice, there’s so many more coaches and the coaches’ knowledge is so much greater. The transformation is just amazing.”

The quality of OMHS’ track program is one of the reasons she moved her family to the Oak Mountain area as their family grew.

The time of their most recent move was when Cooper began to show signs he wanted to run, and she knew Oak Mountain distance coach David Moore and the program would help him achieve his dreams.

“We purposely looked for a house in Oak Mountain for multiple reasons, but a big reason I wanted to come here is I knew I could work with coach Moore,” Jessica said. “I really liked coach Moore and I wanted my son running for him.”

Cooper Jeffcoat runs the boys 800-meter run at the 2024 AHSAA Class 7A Indoor Track and Field State Championships on Feb. 3. (File)

A unique bond

After they moved, Jessica returned to the track and field program as the coach at Oak Mountain Middle School to help the program continue to grow. As a result, she had the special opportunity to coach Cooper before he ran for her alma mater.

What’s more, Cooper took up running the 800-meter run, Jessica’s former specialty, making it even more of a full-circle moment.

While some parents struggle to balance their relationship with their kids as they progress in sports, the Jeffcoats have succeeded even with Jessica coaching Cooper. Not only have they built a strong separation between home life and track life, their relationship has grown stronger in the process.

“He’s always been really good about being able to check whatever we had going on at home (and) putting it aside when we got to the track,” Jessica said. “He honestly was one of my very best athletes for respecting me and listening to me. Now at home, maybe not as much, but on the track, it’s been great. It’s given us something to bond over and keep our relationship strong during the teenage years.”

In fact, that family dynamic extends to the rest of the team where many of Cooper’s teammates have built strong relationships with Jessica as well.

Her support has helped Cooper enjoy running even more as their relationship continues to grow alongside his running career.

“At home, we’re just normal, but like on the track, it’s just amazing,” Cooper said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It really just makes running feel like a family, because all my friends know my mom until for a while, everyone just feels like my mom’s their mom. And our relationship’s just grown from running and it makes everything so much more fun having her there.”

Part of being both a parent and a coach means Jessica must balance her involvement alongside Oak Mountain High School’s track and field head coach Betsy Rogers and distance coach Moore.

Luckily, her experience as a runner helps give her perspective on how coaches operate, which not only helps her be a better coach but trust Rogers and Moore with Cooper’s development. It’s a balance that Rogers believes Jessica does well.

“Being that she was a runner herself and that she’s a coach, she is very practical with the sport,” Rogers said. “She gives him very good advice. She just doesn’t interfere with what coach Moore, who is his distance coach, and I want for him. She trusts us in that process, which is great because she’s also a coach herself and so she has some idea of what we’re doing.”

It’s a balance that Rogers herself maintains as well, as Jessica currently coaches her son at Oak Mountain Middle School.

In addition, Pelham track and field coach Thomas Springfield’s son runs for Oak Mountain, completing a web of relationships between the two high schools Jessica attended.

With those relationships comes the risk of favoritism, but Jessica didn’t struggle with that when Cooper ran for her at OMMS. She preached to him that he would have to work for his starting spot just like everything else.

That was rarely a problem for a hard-working and determined kid like Cooper.

“She told him that if she was going to ever run him, it had to be because of what he was doing, not because of the fact that he was her son,” Rogers said. “And so, he made sure that his times were undeniable, like you couldn’t keep him out.”

Part of that hard-working mindset comes from his motivation to constantly improve.

A key aspect of Cooper and Jessica’s relationship are the goals they set for him. While Jessica helps her son set lofty goals, his most recent one of breaking the school record for the indoor 800-meter run was one he set for himself.

“He’s super motivated on his own,” Jessica said. “Him and I, at the beginning of every season, we set goals, and we don’t tell people our goals that him and I set, except we do share them with his coach, but that’s it. He told me at the beginning of the season, ‘I’m going to set the indoor 800 record,’ and I was like, ‘Don’t tell people that, it might not happen.’ And he went and did it and ran a 1:55 as a sophomore, which is fairly unheard of.”

His time was so unheard of that as of March 26, his time of 1:55.54 at the state championship was ninth in the nation among sophomores in the indoor boys 800-meter run.

But for Cooper, it’s because of their relationship that Jessica is able to help him set lofty goals and work hard to reach his full potential.

“It makes it a lot easier because she gives me a lot of my goals, and I don’t trust myself making my own goals because she makes them so much harder and pushes me to do my very best,” Cooper said. “So, going into the season, I thought there’s no way I was even going to break it, so when she gave me that goal to break it, I was very confused because I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to run that fast,’ but having her to push me to actually do that, it’s been amazing. She’s still been coaching me even after middle school, so it’s very fun to have her on this journey with me.”

The journey continues

Cooper reaching those goals isn’t a surprise anymore to Rogers because he has consistently risen to his own expectations and the goals that he and Jessica set.

Rogers is proud of how far Cooper has come when looking back at his achievements, and because of his early success, she believes he has a high ceiling of what he can accomplish before he leaves Oak Mountain.

“He has much higher expectations for himself than we do, and in a positive way,” Rogers said. “He knew last year he wanted to be the fastest freshman runner in the state, and he met that goal, and this year he wanted to break the current school record and he told me he was going to do it and he did it. And so, I think that there’s so much more in store for him moving forward because he’s done so much so early. I just think he’s going to be one of those really exceptional runners by the time he’s a senior.”

While part of that motivation comes from his teammates, Rogers believes his internal motivation comes from wanting to leave a legacy and joining his mother in the record books.

“These kids on my team really push each other. They’re super supportive of each other, but I think he’s driven by getting his name in the books,” Rogers said. “He likes to have records, he likes to have goals that he sets, and he likes to meet those goals, he likes to prove me and the distance coach wrong, he likes to prove his mom wrong and so these are the things that drive him.”

For Rogers, Moore and Jessica, they’ve gotten used to being proven wrong as Cooper continues to exceed expectations.

Just this school year alone, Cooper has set personal records in the 5K, indoor 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,600-meter runs and the outdoor 400-meter and 800-meter runs.

He has also earned a pair of top 10 finishes in cross country at the Shelby County Championship and Oak Mountain Invitational, finished just inside the top 50 at the Class 7A state championship and never finished below fourth place in the indoor 800-meter run.

“It’s been fun to watch him prove us all wrong and what our expectations are for him,” Rogers said. “And so, we’ll say, ‘Well, we expect you to do this.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to do one better on y’all.’ And he always does.”

As for what that “one better” is now, Cooper has now set his sights on outdoor season and improving on his 800-meter time. He has already been working harder than ever in the wake of his indoor success to make a similar leap in outdoor.

“I talked to my coach and after my race, he told me that he was about to make my training a lot harder than it already is,” Cooper said. “So, I’ve been doing a lot more training and upping my workout and I have been drinking protein shakes, and some of the goals that me and him wrote were to once again podium at state and maybe even get a little bit better than a third-place finish and to break the outdoor school record as well.”

While that sounds like a lofty goal, he has already made strides to achieve yet another one of his big goals. In his first complete race of the season at the King of the Mountain Invitational, he shaved 2.89 seconds off his personal record, putting him just under two second off Michael Marvin’s school record of 1.54.13.

If there’s one thing that Jessica, Rogers, Moore and many others from the Oak Mountain track program have learned, it’s to never doubt Cooper Jeffcoat.

“Going into outdoor, he’s got in his head he’s going to set that school record,” Jessica said. “And I am almost willing to bet he will. He’s just so self-motivated. I think anything can happen for him in this running career just with his motivation that he’s able to find in himself.”