By Evan Wheaton
Dirt piles beside the hole.
One after another.
It crumbles down as the earth is slowly terraformed into a 10-by-12-foot pit.
Jake Cupak is hard at work.
Although he didn’t quite imagine spending his first spring semester of college building Koi fish ponds.
“There’s so much greatness that could’ve been accomplished,” Cupak says.
He should be making saves at the net in practice right about now.
Cupak should be in the midst of his first season with the Springfield College men’s lacrosse team. If things had gone the way they were intended, Cupak would play a role in helping the Pride chase their 13th consecutive conference title.
He can’t imagine being a senior and having his last year of lacrosse taken.
But he feels the hurt, wanting to prove something not only to himself, but to coaches and oppositions as well.
On March 12 at 3 p.m., the New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference President’s Council made the unanimous decision to cancel the NEWMAC spring sports regular seasons, as well as spring championships.
This decision was made due to growing concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s swept the globe. Upon hearing the news, doors were slammed, players stepped out and tears were shed.
“Even as a player, you really don’t understand how much work you put into until they take something like that away from you,” Cupak says. “It was the buy-in to our lives. That’s what we revolved around. I mean, school comes first, but that’s our second priority, that’s our first love.”
Under the impression that one last game would be held, practice was in full effect at Stagg Field that following Monday. But at the start of practice, something changed in the demeanor of the coaching staff.
Something was off. They all knew.
The rest of practice consisted of a scrimmage and players switching positions, an opportunity to blow off steam and have some fun before head coach Keith Bugbee had everyone take a knee. It was then that the Pride were told that this was the last time they’d suit up.
“Only so many of those moments – suiting up, strapping the helmet up and going at it with your brothers,” Cupak says.
With spring sports at an abrupt halt and Springfield College moving to virtual learning during the ongoing struggle against the new coronavirus, Cupak needs something to fill the void. He needs to keep himself busy and give his mind focus.
He needs to remember his training.
It’s 5 a.m.
Cupak wakes up with his head touching the top wall and his feet hitting the far side past his bunk. Being 6-foot 5-inches and 240 pounds, he squeezes along a tight metal corridor belonging to the LHA-6 USS America.
Cupak is in the Navy, where he would spend four years out of high school prior to enrolling in Springfield College.
It’s 2017. Cupak is in the middle of a deployment at sea that would last 256 days. He’ll eat breakfast one hour from now before his work day carries him through until 9 p.m.
An aviation boatswain handler, Cupak spends his day-to-day directing harriers and other aircrafts landing on the flight deck and other operations regarding aviation.
He gets briefed everyday at 7 a.m. and depending on the flight plan, he’ll return to bed and be ready for a night ops, waking once more at 9 p.m. to work through the night. Some days, the night ops will continue to run from 7 a.m. through the following day whenever it ends.
“It was pretty strenuous, you mostly had time to work and sometimes work out, but other than that, it was pretty strict,” Cupak says. “The days still went by pretty fast because once you get into a routine like that, you know what to expect and you just get through it.
“Adapt like they taught us.”
Adaptation – Cupak’s biggest takeaway from his four years of service.
“That’s what’s really helped me coming into college, being able to adapt to situations and they’re different,” he says. “But I think that I like them more, and Springfield College is a good fit for me, which made it a pretty easy transition.”
Adapting means always being on it. Never letting up.
One can’t be complacent and expect to make necessary changes in different situations. Cupak takes the same mentality from his days in the Navy and translates it to all facets of life, including the lacrosse field.
Cupak always remembers his training, he never becomes complacent. He can’t create a dangerous situation on the flight deck by letting his guard down, and he can’t do the same at the net.
“But if you become complacent and don’t think about situations,” Cupak says, “it can be a very dangerous operation and on the lacrosse field, if you take that mental state and use it, never be complacent and work as hard as you can, you can accomplish so much more than you think you can.”
Cupak was among the graduate class of 2015 at Westfield High School. After the third game of his freshman year, he started at net for the Bombers and held on to win in overtime to upset a then-No. 1 South Hadley team.
From there, Cupak embarked on a successful high school varsity career. A 2014 All-American, he also garnered Super 7 and All-Western Mass. honors as well as All-Scholastic letters from the House of Representatives.
He also won a Western Mass. title in 2014 after the Bombers knocked off Longmeadow – the gold standard of high school lacrosse – in the playoffs, their second win against the Lancers after a 30-year plus drought of losing to the program.
Bugbee, who was living in Westfield at the time, went to many of Cupak’s games.
“I loved him as a goalie,” Bugbee says. “I loved his demeanor, his attitude, his skill – everything about him.”
Watching Cupak play for Westfield excited Bugbee. He knew this was a goalie that would fit in well at Springfield.
“He’s a kid I recruited out of high school, well, I tried to recruit him out of high school, that’s a better way to put it,” Bugbee says.
“I remember reaching out to him about Springfield and he was like, ‘Sorry, I’m going to the Navy.’ I thought, ‘Oh, you’re going to Minneapolis? Are you going to play at the Naval Academy?’ he said, ‘No, I’m going to the Navy Navy.’ So that’s what he did, he served our country for four years.”
After going through MEPs his junior year, Cupak wasn’t sure if the Navy would become a career or not. Like all situations, he kept an open mind to the idea, but decided to further his education and take the field again.
It wasn’t until around Christmas last year that Cupak called Bugbee to tell him that he was finished with his services and that he wanted to play for Springfield.
There were many factors that played into Cupak’s decision to play for the Pride. Being just a half hour drive from Westfield was convenient for the commuter, though the biggest contributor wasn’t about mileage.
It was the mentality of Springfield men’s lacrosse.
“I reached out to a few college coaches, and coach Bugbee, he was the most interested and the one I just bought into his program from the beginning,” Cupak says. “He preaches about being a Chief Dawg.”
The Chief Dawg mentality – being successful not just on the field, but in life beyond lacrosse.
“When I first heard ‘Chief Dawg,’ I didn’t know how much meaning was behind that. I think that when you’re in the military, there’s a lot of meanings like that that you don’t really recognize in the beginning,” Cupak says. “I just felt comfortable with his teaching style and his approach to the game and passion for it.
“I had that connection with him.”
Despite buying into the culture from the start, Cupak isn’t sure that he can be called a Chief Dawg after his first year. It’s something that has to be worked toward. It’s something that has to be proven every day in all aspects of life on and off the field.
It’s something that doesn’t come easily.
“I don’t know if I can be called a Chief Dawg, but that’s everything that I’m striving for. I would love to be called a Chief Dawg, but I’m just not sure,” Cupak says.
“I work as hard as I possibly can, but to call myself a Chief Dawg – I’d rather someone else call me a Chief Dawg or coach Bugbee call me a Chief Dawg before I ever think of myself as a Chief Dawg.”
Relentless, a book by New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, is what Cupak always refers back to.
Edelman was a quarterback for Kent State, and when the Patriots drafted him as a receiver, his father told him that NFL receivers have been catching passes their whole lives. In order to stay ahead of the curve, Edelman would have to catch more than 1,000 passes a day to catch up.
“That’s kind of my mentality, I know that I need the reps and I need to go out and get the reps any way possible,” Cupak says.
Under starting goalie Dan Biesty, Cupak has gotten plenty of them at practice. He’s been adjusting to this new level of play one day at a time. But it will take a lot of hard work – and a lot of adapting – to get to where he needs to be.
“These are college shots. I mean, I’m a goalie, these are college kids that come here to perform,” Cupak says. “Since they’ve been working at it and never took any time off and have just been crafting their skill ever since high school or whenever they started playing the game, it is very difficult.”
The transition from high school level to Division III has been a challenge, but one Cupak has embraced.
He wasn’t without a stick in hand during his service, as he played for two years with the Los Banditos of the Southern California Post Collegiate Men’s Lacrosse League while stationed in San Diego, Calif.
“My passion for the game – I couldn’t step away from it so easily,” Cupak says. “I never not want to stop playing this game. It’s just such a passion of mine and when you’re out on the field, there’s no other feeling like it.”
“I still get all the emails for all the teams coming on.”
The Pride are known for seeking steep out-of-conference competition. With four NESCAC teams on the schedule along with nationally ranked teams like Union, Springfield gets the height of D-III lacrosse, which is already a huge adjustment for first-years that haven’t taken time off at all.
“To go from high school to even a club to college, and the level we play with our schedule, it was a huge acceleration,” Bugbee says. “Most freshmen, no matter how good they are, it’s a huge adjustment.”
But Cupak is built to take on new challenges. It all goes back to his training, his level of adaptability and processing what’s in front of him. He doesn’t dive into his emotions as we often tend to. He surveys his situation from many angles.
Then he adapts.
“I always try to look at things from three points. My point, the opposition’s point and the step back of a general point,” Cupak says. “That’s how I assess mostly every situation.”
The hole is roughly three feet deep now.
Cupak can’t just sit around.
That was evident when he split wood at his friend’s house for six hours prior to picking up this job.
He’s focusing on the task at hand and adapting to one of the biggest curveballs he’s been thrown – one of the biggest curveballs humanity has been thrown.
In light of his first season being taken by the new coronavirus, Cupak is remembering his training.
He plants the shovel.
He’s groomed for situations like these.
Cupak scoops the dirt and raises it over the mound.
He isn’t just keeping himself busy – he’s adapting like he always has.
“There’s a gear in me that realizes life moves forward.”
He turns the shovel.
The dirt cascades down to the mound.
Now it’s time to line the hole with rocks. It’s almost ready for the Koi fish, who will adapt to their new environment in the pond.
And like the Koi fish, Cupak will do the same when he takes the field again.
Photo courtesy of Springfield Athletics