By Garrett Cote
On the way to a U-12 travel baseball game, Panayiotis Kapanides and Jack Cowan were bantering on the bus – as many pre-teen boys do – about girls while impatiently waiting to arrive at their destination.
To put the conversation to rest, Kapanides bet Cowan that if he hit a home run in the upcoming game, Cowan would have to ask his crush out. During Kapanides’ first at-bat, he hit a bomb that cleared the fence by plenty, and couldn’t help but smile as he began his trot around the bases.
“First pitch I see, I hit it like 400 feet, no joke,” Kapanides said. “I’m running down the first-base line, and I’m laughing at him and pointing to him in the dugout. Ever since Little League baseball, he was my guy. The connection that we had through sports. There’s nothing else that can really create that.”
That home run, along with the remainder of that travel baseball season, initiated a lifelong bond between the two boys from Bedford, Mass.
Throughout middle and high school, Kapanides and Cowan were linked through a mutual friend, Malachi Hazelton, who completed the friendship triangle and tied the two closer together.
The big three of Kapanides, Cowan and Hazelton pushed each other to the limit during Cowan’s junior year, Kapanides’ sophomore year and Hazelton’s freshman year, respectively. The trio decided to quit football and focus solely on hoops. They worked out twice a day in Cowan’s crossfit gym in his garage before heading to the court to get shots up and play one-on-one. Any workout they could think of, they would incorporate it into their routine the next day.
“That year developed all of us as basketball players and made us that much stronger,” Kapanides said. “We took a jump from being role players on the team the year before to being the leaders. We set the example and showed what it meant to work hard and value Bedford basketball.”
Only one man had a bigger impact on Kapanides and Cowan than Hazelton. That man was their high school head coach, Vin McGrath. McGrath made it a priority to not only teach his players the skills necessary to be successful in basketball, but also in life – and that’s what stuck with Kapanides and Cowan.
“He shaped us into who we are, I swear to god, and I know Jack would say the same exact thing,” Kapanides said. “Coach McGrath taught us how to be better men on and off the court. We learned a lot of valuable lessons playing together for him.”
Cowan graduated before Kapanides and chose his next path first: Nichols College in Dudley, Mass. A year later, when it came time for Kapanides to decide where he would spend the next four years, he picked the birthplace of basketball, Springfield College.
The two didn’t see much of each other as Cowan glided through his sophomore year at Nichols and Kapanides wrapped up his first at Springfield. And once COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic toward the end of that school year, they had even fewer opportunities to chill with one another.
In the back of an office building in Bedford lies a secret basketball hoop that not many people in town know of. When the pandemic wiped out all other places to play, Kapanides understood that this building was the only option if he wanted to get a workout in.
About midway through his workout, Kapanides noticed a vehicle approaching the building. It didn’t take long for a smile to form as he recognized the car and its conductor.
“It was Jack,” he said. “He pulled up, and I was like, ‘Why didn’t I hit him up earlier?’ It was COVID, so we weren’t itching to hangout with each other, but once I saw him everything felt back in place. We each got a workout in and then just started chatting. We had two full years of not really linking up, and that day we reconnected.”
The rest of the summer was filled with workouts for Kapanides and Cowan – the two were devoted to improving their skills and reforming their friendship. The COVID year was their getaway.
“Every night we would hang out. I was doing a workout plan, and he joined in,” Kapanides said. “It was a three-month program, and he was all in. We would go to the turf every other night, rain or shine. We’d be in puddles, 90-degree humidity, it didn’t matter. It was a great year.”
During his time at Nichols, Cowan was a part of three conference championship-winning teams and earned a trip to the Elite Eight during his freshman year. He has a championship pedigree instilled inside him, and he recognizes the sacrifices it takes to win games at the highest level.
“He understands and sees what we’re not doing compared to what he did before,” Springfield head coach Mike McClendon said. “It’s been valuable to have another guy that’s been to the mountaintop to tell these guys and show these guys that they need to work harder.”
After not receiving as much playing time as he had hoped during his senior year at Nichols, Cowan was ready for a change of scenery. He still had one final year of eligibility – he just needed to find the right fit.
“My last year was not a good experience,” Cowan said. “We got a new coach, and he changed the whole team around. Even now it’s not the same.”
Seeking some help, Cowan leaned on his best friend for advice.
“I asked Pete what it was like at Springfield, and he said it was awesome and they’re really big on supporting each other,” Cowan said. “I just wanted to reconnect with him, because we had a great time in high school. I didn’t even look anywhere else.”
While Springfield likely won’t be blazing its own trail to the Elite Eight this season as Nichols had during Cowan’s first season there, Cowan has certainly brought an uncanny work ethic that this young Pride team can learn from, according to McClendon.
“He’s the hardest worker in the room. Every single day,” McClendon said. “He shows up with that mindset that he’s just going to outwork everyone. Having four years at Nichols has really matured him. He knows what to come in here and do. Trying to find that space to fit him in on the court is the next step.”
The adjustment for Cowan hasn’t been the smoothest. Going from competing in the national tournament every year to trying to win just one game at a time is not a challenge he expected, but is one he’s willing to tackle.
“Nichols felt like a dynasty, because every year we were playing knowing we were going to win the conference,” Cowan said. “But coming here now, we’re just trying to win a game. It’s definitely different, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help this team in any way possible.”
Kapanides, who is dealing with a concussion that has kept him out of the lineup for all but two games, hasn’t had the opportunity to help the Pride yet either. Both Kapanides and Cowan are eager to make their mark this season, but it hasn’t quite worked out the way they had hoped thus far.
“The goal is to get them to play together,” McClendon said. “That was always something I think they cherished and couldn’t wait for, it just hasn’t happened yet. At practice, you can see they have a connection without connecting. You can tell these two guys are cut from the same cloth. Hopefully down the line we can get them to play together, because that would be pretty awesome.”
The tight-knit, family-like atmosphere sold Cowan on joining the Springfield community. However, on-campus housing is particularly limited for graduate students. Because of that, Cowan lives off campus in Enfield, Conn., which causes him to not feel as connected to the Springfield College culture that he so frequently heard about prior to his arrival.
But without Cowan even recognizing it, he fits right in, and he belongs more than he may think.
Following Springfield’s 76-65 home defeat to Trinity, which dropped the Pride’s record to 1-5, Cowan – despite not logging a single minute of playing time – stayed behind to help the event staff break down chairs and put them away. It was a perfect demonstration of Humanics in action. Cowan had no idea anyone was watching, and he didn’t stop until every chair was picked up.
“He’s one of the most selfless dudes,” Kapanides said of Cowan. “If you need something, if you’re in need, he’ll be the first one to be right there for you. He’ll hit you up and check on you to ask what you need. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
Whether or not the two step foot on the court together, teaming up one final time has provided Kapanides and Cowan a feeling like no other. It’s a dream to play with your best friend in college, and the Bedford boys are living out that dream.
“When he decided to come here, I was just so happy,” Kapanides said. “I get one more chance to play with my hometown brother that I fell in love with the sport of basketball with. And now, we’re pretty much finishing our careers together. It’s unreal.”
Photo Courtesy Springfield College Athletics