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Recovery Begins at Home: Lebanon Grad Coaches While Mending From Injury

Cooper Hardy, left, applauds a play while watching the Lebanon High boys  soccer team play during a game against Stevens High in Lebanon on Sept. 23, 2013. Hardy was on the Wheaton College soccer team when he suffered an injury that forced him to take a year off. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage

Cooper Hardy, left, applauds a play while watching the Lebanon High boys soccer team play during a game against Stevens High in Lebanon on Sept. 23, 2013. Hardy was on the Wheaton College soccer team when he suffered an injury that forced him to take a year off. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »

Lebanon — Can’t study. Can’t exercise. Can’t focus for long stretches of time. There aren’t a lot of things Cooper Hardy can do while he spends a semester away from Wheaton College recovering from a concussion.

But he can coach. He never really thought about it before, but the 20-year-old Meriden resident is glad it has happened.

Hardy was at home last month resting off the effects of a head injury from an Aug. 31 match for the Wheaton men’s soccer team when Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone had an opening for a volunteer assistant. Hardy gladly accepted the chance to return to his alma mater, albeit on a temporary basis, hoping that his lingering concussion symptoms would abate, allowing for a return to school in January.

“When I played for Rob, it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing soccer,” Hardy said last week after the Raiders’ win over Souhegan at Lebanon High. “It’s a great environment, great guys. Every alum I meet from Lebanon wants to help the team. I’m in a position where I can do that, and I feel I wanted to do that and it was the right opportunity.

“I mean, it’s the only thing I really can do now. It’s nice to be around the game, with the guys, and still have an outlet instead of just sitting around the house.”

For as solid as his high school experience with the Raiders was, Hardy’s time at Wheaton thus far couldn’t be more star-crossed.

The only all-New England selection in Johnstone’s 20 years at LHS, Hardy chose Wheaton in part because of the immediate chance to play for 20th-year coach Matt Cushing.

“He said, ‘We need a center back,’ ” recalled Hardy, who was a center midfielder with the Raiders. “I said, ‘Hey, as long as I’m on the team.’ ”

But Hardy broke his foot in the Twin State Lions Cup prior to enrolling at Wheaton, a school of about 1,600 students located between Boston and Providence, R.I. It limited his freshman contribution for the Lyons to just one start and three matches, but Hardy grew into his new position during spring play.

A three-year captain at Lebanon, Hardy sustained a concussion in a spring game with Brandeis University, but the one he took on Aug. 31 in a game against Wentworth Institute of Technology proved more fearsome.

About 20 minutes into the game, Hardy, who goes forward for corners, went to snap a corner home.

“They had a kid 6-5, 6-6 who jumped and caught me (above the left eye),” said Hardy. “Didn’t break anything, but my eye was swollen shut for a week.”

Hardy went to class for a week, then came home for a week and rested. Ten days after, he went back to school and back to class where he had the worst headache he’d ever experienced.

He came back and rested again before talking with a neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“She didn’t tell me either way if I should or should not go back to school, but at that point I’d been out of class for three weeks,” said Hardy. “I wasn’t even thinking about the soccer aspect of it; I was just thinking about when I could do schoolwork.”

It was at that time that Hardy, his parents and Cushing agreed that a semester away would be wise therapy. It’s turned out that coaching a soccer team has helped as well.

Hardy and Johnstone have remained close since the former’s graduation, so when Hardy needed a place to hang out other than his home, his one-time coach welcomed him back. It just so happened that Johnstone was also losing a volunteer assistant in former Kimball Union Academy and Bowdoin College striker Nick Powell, who was leaving for a playing and teaching stint in Austria.

“He called and said, ‘Could I come up to practice and watch?’ Because when you have a concussion, you just have to sit there for hour after hour,’ ” Johnstone recalled. “You don’t know what boring is until you’ve been to one of our practices, so it made him feel better about being at home.”

Hardy has yet to pass baseline concussion testing in order to resume physical exercise. At least with the Raiders, he can draw on past playing experience and deliver suggestions.

His resume carries weight, even with the few ex-teammates remaining who played with Hardy at Lebanon. Out of central midfield, Hardy scored 35 goals in three-plus varsity seasons, none bigger than the double-overtime header on Sept. 22, 2009, that beat Hanover, 1-0, to end a 52-match Marauder unbeaten streak stretching across four seasons. Lebanon and Hanover met six times in regular-season games over Hardy’s last three high schools seasons, and he registered a point in every one.

“(He’s a) leader by example, but also a leader by words,” Johnstone said. “Few words, but important words. No extra baloney or posing.”

In his first stint of coaching, Hardy is trying to reflect lessons learned in a season — largely on the bench — observing his Wheaton coaches at work.

“Watching them coach and seeing how guys respond to certain stuff and what works and doesn’t work, I think that’s been the biggest thing since I’ve been around at a higher level,” Hardy said. “I understand when you’re on the field, it doesn’t help being screamed at all the time or hearing the same thing over and over again. I’ve tried to complement Rob as much as I can. Seeing guys last year get frustrated with certain stuff or respond with certain stuff, I try to apply those ideas.”

Hardy also had a solid academic reputation to keep in mind when he decided to withdraw for the semester. He made Lebanon’s high honor roll all four years there and landed the dean’s list at Wheaton last spring.

Now, instead of falling further behind in his studies, Hardy has about three months to let his head heal while still having a role on the soccer sidelines. He hopes to resume fitness training by then, maybe even step onto a field with the Raiders — if and when his symptoms relent.

“I didn’t expect a lot of respect being two years out of high school,” Hardy said. “But they’ve been brilliant in responding to it.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.