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November 14, 2011

Flying past adversity

By: Marc Mullen

James Shupp experienced turbulence during his career at Tech, but enjoyed a smooth landing in his final season with the Hokies

It’s been a pretty wild ride that has featured many highs and lows for Virginia Tech men’s soccer senior James Shupp, and that doesn’t include one of the most interesting experiences of his life – flying an airplane.

Since stepping onto campus in Blacksburg in 2007, Shupp has experienced the highs of starting in a Final Four match (as a freshman) and scoring a game-winning goal against a top-ranked team (as a senior). But he also has seen the lows of four straight losing seasons and a rash of injuries that sidelined him last year. Yet above all, he will leave next May with a degree in aerospace engineering and wouldn’t change anything.

“I definitely knew that I made the right decision as soon as I got here,” Shupp said. “Everything I have done here has been memorable, and my education is going to help me. I’m always going to love looking back, knowing that I played for Virginia Tech.”

Recalling the most memorable highlights of his five-year career with the Hokies, Shupp initially pointed to his freshman campaign as a whole – and who wouldn’t. He started and played in 22 games and clocked the second-most minutes as a member of the Hokie backline. He helped the defense register seven shutouts and was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team.

He singled out his “Welcome to Division I soccer” moment when Tech took the field in Tulsa, Okla., facing the No. 23 hosts in the opening match of the Level 3 Golden Hurricane Classic. A week after upsetting No. 19 Clemson in overtime and after beating St. John’s, the Hokies stood at No. 19 in the country, and the game was being broadcast nationally on the Fox Soccer Channel.

“During my freshman year, we played Tulsa and it was on FSC, and it was my first time ever playing on TV,” Shupp recalled. “We all walked out [on the field], and there were cameras everywhere. I’m thinking ‘Wow! This is going to be broadcast on TV nationally.’

“I remember it was a back-and-forth game, and when Bryan Collier scored, we were just going crazy. That was definitely one of my greatest moments – well, it was at least my first.”

That tally capped a Hokie comeback, which started in the 84th minute on a Patrick Nyarko goal that tied the game at 2 and was completed on Collier’s goal with just 23 ticks left in regulation.

Tech would ride a wave that season, one that featured a 15-match unbeaten streak, a top-five national ranking and the program’s first NCAA tournament victory on its way to a berth into the 2007 NCAA College Cup. The Hokies fell 2-0 to eventual champions Wake Forest in the semifinals, but finished the season with an overall 14-4-5 record and a No. 3 ranking in the men’s soccer national poll.

“Going to the Final Four and starting in that game and making that [NCAA] run – that was just amazing,” Shupp said. “We just had some great wins and playing and beating Connecticut was unbelievable.

“I didn’t think I was going to come into college and do that. A year earlier, I’m sitting in high school and watching these guys play on TV in the Final Four, not knowing that, the next year, I would be part of a team playing on ESPN, like those guys did. It was sort of surreal.”

Shupp’s journey to the Final Four started when he was 4 years old and playing for his father, Jeff, in a rec league. A family friend, Dave Phillips, whom Shupp later played under, suggested that he play for a travel league, and Shupp’s career really took off after that.

When he was 13, Shupp tried out for FC Delco – a club team near his home in Downingtown, Pa., about an hour west of Philadelphia – and made the team. He later played for state and regional teams that took him all over the world – Argentina, Italy, Germany and France to name a few.

“That was phenomenal playing all these club teams like AC Milan and River Plate and Boca Juniors,” Shupp said. “It was great playing with all the best kids from all over the country all on one team.”

He also credits those coaches – Mike Gorni and David Tordone – for not only helping him further his soccer development, but also helping him during the recruiting process as well.

“I was the first athlete in my family to play in college, so we really had no idea what to do, and that’s where those coaches helped me out,” Shupp said. “They grew up around players going from high school to college. When I got contacted by a couple of schools, I didn’t really know what to do. I was like ‘Oh, this school looks nice, this team is good.’

“I kind of narrowed it down to three schools, Brown, Virginia Tech and the Naval Academy. I crossed Brown off my list – I don’t even remember why – so it came down to the Navel Academy and Virginia Tech.

“I went through the whole admissions process at the Naval Academy, but I just decided to come here. I was going to play soccer in the ACC, which is the best conference in the nation, and then their [Tech’s] aerospace department is one of the top in the nation with top-notch facilities, so I knew I was going to play the best competition in the nation and get one of the best educations in the field that you can get.”

In fairness, Shupp is pretty accurate on both counts. The Virginia Tech College of Engineering ranks seventh among engineering schools in the nation among public universities, and nine of the college’s undergraduate programs are ranked among the top 20 of their peer programs.

When it comes to the level of play of men’s soccer in the ACC over the past 27 years – longer than Shupp’s been alive – the conference has pulled in 13 NCAA titles. More recently, four out of the past six have been won by ACC schools, and since Shupp has been in Blacksburg, three of the four.

Playing in the ACC also may have helped him garner a U.S. National Team invitation for the U-20 squad. During the spring of his freshman year, he went to New Orleans for five days and competed against about two dozen other college athletes in the U-20 camp. Then his team faced off against a pair of teams from Honduras.

“I went, played in the camp and played in a game down there,” he said. “It’s crazy. Most of those guys there are playing pro right now. But that was a great experience to play for the national team.

“It was also after [Hurricane] Katrina because we took a bus tour around the 9th Ward, which I think was the area hit the hardest. So the coach took us down there to try and bring us down to earth a little bit. To see first hand what really happened was eye-opening, and to know that we are playing in the New Orleans Saints football facility and that [the flooding] happened just miles away was definitely eye-opening.”

Shupp returned to Tech for the 2008 season and started all 19 matches and led the team in minutes. The season wasn’t as magical as his freshman campaign, and it marked the start of some of the lows that nearly derailed his career.

That December, Shupp had the first of what turned out to be four sports hernia surgeries, two on each side, in a 19-month span. The first surgery came on his left side, and two months later, surgery was done on his right side. In December of 2009, the process repeated itself.

“I had the first one, and the way I came back, I did everything by the protocol and our trainer, Jimmy Lawrence, did a great job with me. I trust him to the moon and back,” Shupp said. “I was coming back from that one when I popped the right one.

“I don’t know. I could have had the problem even before I came in here, but who knows when I first got it. It was just giving me problems. I think because I was playing so much is why the other ones happened.”

His final surgery came just two months before his senior season started, and that led Shupp to the possibility of redshirting. Not that he wanted to have the surgery, but it worked out perfectly for him.

“My engineering program is really hard to do in four years, let alone with a sport, so a lot of guys do it in five years,” he said. “I basically extended the program to five years, and I figured since I had another year of school left anyway, I didn’t want to rush it and get hurt again.

“I already had three surgeries before the last one, and I just didn’t want to get back too fast. It was basically an easy decision for me to make. I wanted to redshirt, come back health-wise and take it easy with school.

“Preseason was coming up and I wasn’t in shape because of the surgery, so I didn’t want to force the issue and get hurt again. So personal health wise, I didn’t want to have this problem the rest of my life. I took it easy with that and came back in the spring.”

Engineering, not a particularly popular major for many of the student-athletes at Tech, was a major influence for Shupp in his decision on his post-high school education. His father had earned an engineering degree from Penn State and worked for Lockheed Martin in the aerospace industry.

“I think that’s what got me started thinking about engineering, and I was just always interested in planes and space,” Shupp said. “I saw that Virginia Tech had a great aerospace department, let alone an engineering department, and I also got to play soccer for them, so it was like a win-win situation for me.”

Some of his best friends in Blacksburg probably figured it was a win-win situation for them as well when Shupp decided to redshirt last season – and the reason had nothing to do with his skills on the soccer field. No, they won out because of Shupp’s skills in the kitchen.

Shupp loves cooking, and his favorite meal is ribs. He makes his own barbecue sauce and has been known to make various plates for tailgates.

“When I was little, my sisters would go to school, and my mom and I would make little snacks or desserts for when they would come back from school,” he said. “And my mom always had us in the kitchen helping to cook, so I always thank her so much because I love cooking now.

“Watching the Food Network, that’s a little hobby of mine that I like to do. But what I really like to do is barbecue. I’m actually trying to get into that a lot more. I love cooking. It’s great.”

Shupp’s mother, Debbie, not only gave her son the cooking bug, but also may have helped guide her middle child, Cassandra, into her profession – a pastry chef in New York. But it could have led to one of Shupp’s worst moments, though he won’t blame his parents.

“When I was in middle school, I was in a cooking class, and I took cookie dough and threw it on the ceiling and it stuck to the ceiling,” he said. “Everyone started laughing and I was like ‘Shut up, shut up, she’s [the teacher] going to hear you.’ And right when she turned around, it fell down.

“The teacher was freaking out at me, and I was sent to the principal’s office. I’m not even sure what I was thinking, but I think it had something to do with my parents. They didn’t teach me to do that, but I guess when you make pasta, to tell when it’s done, you throw it against the wall, and if it sticks, it’s done. I’m not sure how or why I thought the same thing for cookie dough, but for some reason, I got that idea and threw it. And my parents were really mad at me.”

Despite the lows of the past three years, the injuries and the sub-.500 finishes, Shupp managed to save his greatest memory for his final season with the Hokies. On Sept. 10, in their first ACC game of the 2011 season, Tech was playing No. 1 North Carolina – the fifth time Shupp has faced a No. 1-ranked team in his career, and the Hokies were 0-3-1 in the previous four.

They battled the Tar Heels to a scoreless draw through 90 minutes, and 10 minutes of the first overtime forced a second overtime period. A little more than two minutes into the second extra session, Shupp scored the game winner and just began running.

“Everyone was all excited and ready because we had a great week of practice, and then we just played great,” he said. “They had a ton of shots, but [Kyle] Renfro just came up with saves. Then we went into overtime, which gave ourselves a chance.

“Fio [David Fiorello] had a long throw and [Kevin Reitzel] flicked it on. I was on the back post, and I just beat my guy to the ball and ended up just hitting it right in. I didn’t even see the ball go in. I just saw the net ricochet and everyone celebrating, and I just started running.

“There were a lot of people running after me, so I just kept running. I don’t know why. I just wanted to get away from the people because I knew I was going to be mobbed really hard.”

What may have made it even more special for Shupp was that his parents, who have been such a huge impact on his life and have attended as many games as possible, were in the stands to see it first hand. He had only scored two goals in his career prior to this game winner – and this was the first one of his goals that they had seen in person.

“That goal was probably personally one of my favorite memories because I don’t score a lot of goals, and for that to happen, it was just unbelievable,” he said. “And with my parents there, that made it much better.”

A side note: Since 1987 (25 seasons), when the ACC began women’s soccer, no ACC school had beaten both the UNC men’s and women’s soccer teams in the same regular season until Tech did it this fall. The women’s team defeated the Tar Heels in October.

Shupp never made it back to the NCAA Championships, but that game winner is a pretty good high to remember, which kind of gets back to his highest high – flying an airplane.

When Shupp was still considering his college choice, he considered the Naval Academy in part because of a desire to be a Navy pilot. He’s had the opportunity to fly a 172 Cessna on a couple of different occasions, which only added to his love of flying.

“The first time, it was a free lesson, and I just kind of went up there and flew around for about an hour,” he said. “I used to always play those flight simulator games, so to get up there and actually do it in real life was awesome. It is definitely a lot different than a computer game. But I got the hang of it.

“Then, two summers ago, I went, and the guy let me take off, fly around and land, and that was really fun. But I think I scared the instructor because, when I was landing, he was screaming, ‘Pull up! Pull up!’ But I was like, ‘I got it, I got it.’ And I landed safely, so I guess I didn’t mess up that badly.”

The same could definitely be said for his college career. After all, there was the great takeoff and then a wild ride, but the landing certainly was smooth.