Army centerfielder Dakari Cooke, a Bethel High graduate who is finishing up his freshman year at West Point.

Army centerfielder Dakari Cooke, a Bethel High graduate who is finishing up his freshman year at West Point. He's playing with his Army teammates this weekend in Charlottesville in an NCAA baseball tournament regional. (June 2012) (courtesy of Army, Daily Press / May 31, 2012)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The first time Dakari Cooke wondered if West Point was the right place for him was last summer in the middle of cadet basic training.

One too many MREs (meals ready-to-eat to those of us in the civilian world), one too many upperclassman in his face yelling about not moving fast enough or not being able to identify an upperclassman's rank, one too many nights spent sleeping on soggy ground – and all those troubles came before he even sat in his first class.

"That was pretty tough," said Cooke, a Bethel High graduate and center fielder who is in Charlottesville this weekend with his Army teammates for an NCAA baseball tournament regional. "I was getting yelled at for everything. It was a big eye-opener. I had to take a step back."

Basic training at West Point for incoming freshmen — individuals known on-campus as plebes — is referred to as "Beast."

How else would you properly describe a seven-week process that teaches students fundamental drills and procedures necessary for survival at West Point, leadership skills, military lifestyle and tactics? It's also where students learn how to assemble a rifle and shoot it, where they learn to survive on almost nothing but pre-packaged meals and where they get used to 5 a.m. wakeup call.

It may be the ultimate weeding out process, and it almost claimed Cooke, the valedictorian at Bethel last year who chose four years at Army followed by five years of a military commitment over the Ivy League charm of Cornell. Army, which will resume its game against Virginia (38-17-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the bottom of the first inning, and Cornell were the only two schools that offered him a chance to play baseball.

Just nine days after graduating from Bethel last June, he started basic training.

"It was just nerve-racking," said Cooke, who graduated from Bethel with a 4.2 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. "There was a lot of stuff going on. I'd even talked to (Army baseball) coach (Joe Sottolano) about leaving. Then, after I got past that, the next time was in the fall. I was tired of everything. Classes were hard. I wasn't really doing too well in baseball. Everything was just getting really tough on me, but it was worth it to stay. West Point is just a really special place."

Despite his early issues at West Point, Cooke decided to stick it out. Learning to manage time is essential for survival at West Point, but the balancing act of school and military requirements along with athletic pursuits makes time management even more challenging.

During baseball season, Cooke's average day begins with military formations at 6:50 a.m., followed by breakfast at 7. Classes start at 7:30 and go until noon, at which point he gets nearly two hours off for lunch.

"A lot of people will take naps (around lunch), but most athletes will do homework since we have practice all day after classes," Cooke said.

At about 1:55 p.m., classes resume until 3. He'll head to practice at 3:30, which lasts until about 7. He's back in his room by 7:35, and does homework until about 11.

His classes during his plebe year consisted of history, psychology, English, information technology and chemistry. Since he's on an advanced math track, he took multivariable calculus and differential equations.

"Sometimes there may not be enough time for everything," Cooke said. "I know a lot of people pull all-nighters working on projects and things like that."

Now, with his plebe year in the rear view, he's enjoying his time away from campus with teammates that have helped Army (41-13) craft the highest single-season win total in school history.

"There's been multiple times when I thought about leaving," said Cooke, who hit .424 and scored 20 runs in his senior season at Bethel. "I mean, being on the baseball team and being around my teammates, that's the main thing that's made me stay. We have a family here — the Army baseball family. We're all really close."

Though he's already described in the Black Knights' baseball literature as "Army's center fielder of the future," it's been hard for Cooke to make a sustained impact as a freshman. He's hitting .269 with five RBI and five steals while starting 15 games, but he's only gotten 52 at-bats.

Playing time hasn't come easy for Cooke, but Sottolano doesn't hesitate to laud Cooke's value to the team. Sottolano doesn't look at Cooke as your average, everyday plebe.

"By getting to know Dakari a little bit more, I honestly think he's a very, very impressive individual," Sottolano said. "He's the kind of guy I could see being a General Officer someday if he decides to stay in the military. I really mean that. I'd be proud to call him my own son, and I obviously don't say that about a lot of kids."

Army's outgoing class just graduated May 27, which means Cooke should be on break until July 1 when military training resumes. As long as Army is still playing baseball, he doesn't mind his plebe experience lasting a little while longer.

"I would trade that time at home to be able to play and go for a championship with my team," Cooke said. "This is a big reason why I came to West Point."