One year ago, Westfield Tech boys soccer head coach Kyle Dulude met Clara Hubbard.
A fifth grader in Dulude’s physical education class, Hubbard immediately grew a connection with her teacher. She solidified their bond around Christmas time, bringing him a bottle of hot cocoa and marshmallows as a gift for the holidays.
At that time, things were normal.
This past June, however, Hubbard’s life was changed forever when she was diagnosed with leukemia, forcing her to begin a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy and radiation treatments as she geared up for the toughest battle of her life.
For Dulude, Hubbard’s diagnosis was a devastating revelation, but it also presented his team with the chance to rally around her.
“When I found out the first day of school this year that she had cancer, coaching these guys I thought ‘what an opportunity to give her some support for what she’s going through in life’,” he said prior to Wednesday night’s regular season finale versus St. Mary. “Our guys made a couple videos for her to show her to try and be strong and that we’re here for her if she needs anything.”
From that point forward, the Tigers became one of Hubbard’s biggest support systems, sending messages back-and-forth as she continued to fight the cancer that had often forced her to miss school.
“It was sad when we didn’t see her because we were worried about her all the time,” Dulude said. “She’s just a wonderful girl. Last year before she was diagnosed, I can say she was one of the top students in the school, one of the kindest, very polite and very respectful all the time.”
With 27 players on the roster, the team decided to start a regimen that consisted of sending her one card per player, often times getting mad if someone failed to remember to bring one.
“They will yell at someone if someone forgets the card, it’s very important to them,” Dulude said. “We’ve got 27 guys and all 27 are on board with it. They all know her story and they’re all supportive. We constantly take care of her and let her know that we’re thinking of her.”
On Wednesday, after several failed attempts to get Hubbard to a game, Westfield Tech finally got the chance to play in front of its most valuable follower, and honorary captain.
“We’ve been trying to set her up to come here for basically the whole season, it came down to our last game to make it work which is great that we were able to get this,” Dulude said.
“Seeing her on the field while we’re playing gives us that last push that we know we can do more and get that second breathe so we don’t slack and give 100 percent all the time,” added Ruvin Vdovichenko, who was one of eight seniors to be honored before the game.
While the Tigers have thrived this season with just one defeat, Dulude acknowledged the importance of teaching his players lessons that extended beyond the field, starting with being there for a fellow member of the community.
“It’s one of these things where it’s her life and you wanna be there for her,” he said. “This isn’t something that we’re watching on a TV show or movie, this is real life and this is our community. In life, you’re supposed to take care of your community, so this is one of those things that we try to teach the guys what it’s really all about.”
Dulude later added: “It just lets the guys understand the real meaning of life and that some people struggle in different ways.”
Senior Bodhi Hall recalls the day Dulude filled the team in on Hubbard’s diagnosis, as well as the teachable moments that are presented under difficult circumstances.
“During a practice within the first week, coach mentioned her not only because she’s one of his students but to motivate us and have something for us to play for,” Hall said. “He’s showing us videos that he has of her telling us to kick some butt and have fun out there and play for her. It’s really teaching us to cherish the moment, and appreciate what we have in the current moment.
“Knowing that she’s following and asking how our games went and what the scores were, it feels really good.”
In 20 years of coaching, Dulude admitted he has never seen a brotherhood formed like the one this year’s team created, a testament to their personalities and ability to come together in the face of adversity.
“The character for the kids in our program is top notch, it’s something we definitely talk about both on and off the field,” he said. “We just have really great kids and I’m so proud of them, I can’t say enough about them. If they can help the community out they do, and that’s important.“
As Hubbard continues to fight, there will be no shortage of support from Dulude and the rest of the program.
“It’s priceless to see her smile, everything she’s going through and she puts on that smile and no matter what’s going on, everything’s gonna be OK,” Dulude said. “We just wanna help her through this tough time.”