By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Jen Cugini has done a lot during her 38 years. There have been ups and downs, triumphs and failures. She was a star high school soccer player who went on to play Division I at the University of Maryland. She built a highly successful law enforcement career from the ground up. She’s raising a pair of daughters. Like anyone who reaches this stage of their life and career, Cugini has been reflective of late and realizes she wants to give back to her community and help young people.
She said she feels that with everything she has experienced — in both her athletic and professional careers — she might be able to provide a guiding hand to younger people who need it most. That’s why the sergeant in the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office has partnered with Join Together Atlantic County’s Opioid Task Force to coordinate a workshop and prevention intervention for young athletes.
How it all began
During her prep days at Vineland High, Cugini — then known by her maiden name of Jen Lovecchio — was an outstanding soccer player, starting varsity in all four years, and was all-South Jersey second team as a junior. As a senior, she was first-team all-South Jersey and The Daily Journal’s Player of the Year. She was inducted into the Vineland High School Hall of Fame in 2014.
Cugini quickly found out, however, that NCAA Division I soccer is no joke. She rode the bench her freshman year and later a devastating knee injury nearly cost her the rest of her college soccer career.
“It’s funny because I was dead set on going to Lehigh and looking back now, that would have been a totally different commitment even though it’s still Division I. I had gone to Rutgers on an official visit and Maryland was later on in the process. My trainer on my club team was like, ‘when Maryland calls, you go to Maryland.’ But I didn’t have any athletes in my family and I didn’t really know what I was getting into. Freshman year was a ‘holy smokes’ eye-opener. I didn’t realize what I had signed up for. I wouldn’t change it, but it was a big commitment. That school revolves around sports,” said Cugini, who graduated from Vineland High in 2000 and from Maryland in 2005. “Looking back now I realized I learned a lot more than I thought I did at the time. I didn’t realize how much I was taking away from the experience. Freshman year was rough. I went from being an all-star high school athlete, all-this, all-that, player of the year, and then I went to Maryland and rode the bench my whole first year. If I played 14 minutes, that’s being generous. I wasn’t used to that and I wanted to transfer. I was not happy that first fall semester. The bench players were really just there to make the starters better, that’s just what we were, so that was probably one of the toughest years of my young life.
“Sophomore year I red-shirted with a knee injury, and looking back, that was a Godsend. My freshman year the entire back line was sophomores so I was thinking I was going to have to sit the bench until my senior year. But then I redshirted and they were all juniors, and two of them blew their knees out. I went into game-mode after that and said, ‘no, I’m not sitting the bench again (junior year).’ I became a fitness freak, I didn’t go home for breaks, and everything turned around,” she explained. “I ended up being a captain two of my last three years. So, the biggest lesson I learned is that you can go from being a bench player to being a captain and playing every minute. If you would have told me freshman year that would have happened, I would have thought, ‘no way.’”
Another knee injury early in her final season ended up requiring surgery in December of that year, and what followed was a very long recovery that was filled with pain and limited movement.
“I played knowing that when the season ended I was going to have to get surgery and I had surgery on Dec. 19 of that year. That surgery was terrible, it was an eight-hour reconstruction, and that was another experience when I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Cugini said. “I was back at my parents’ house and was non-weight bearing until February, my mom and dad had to do everything for me, so it was bad. I had surgery in February to bend it again, then I had to rehab. I wanted to get into law enforcement but I knew I’d have to go to an academy, and how could I do that? I couldn’t even walk. So, I moved back to Maryland and did physical therapy through the university. I got that done and saw a billboard on Route 95 that said Baltimore Police Department was hiring, so I called the number.”
Taking a chance
Seeing that billboard on the highway eventually jump-started Cugini’s career in law enforcement, as she began as a clerk in the evidence room for the Baltimore Police Department. After a year working in Baltimore, she attended St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to get her master’s degree in criminal intelligence and analysis, and that’s when she met her future husband, Edward, who now owns his own construction company.
“My plan was to go back to Baltimore after getting my masters, but at St. Joe’s I met my husband and while I was finishing my last classes at St. Joe’s they offered me an interview here (at Atlantic County) and everything kind of just fell into place and I never went back to Maryland,” Cugini said.
Cugini started as an agent and went into intelligence, then crimes against children and was on a task force with the FBI, and now is a sergeant in litigation (trials, grand jury, domestic violence — the beginning stages of prosecutorial files) with the county prosecutor’s office.
“I’m responsible for a number of detectives and clerical staff to make sure they are able to do their jobs. We answer to a chief assistant prosecutor and grand jury prosecutors. We make sure files are ready for indictment and trials. So, whatever they need from the police departments in the county to have files ready for trials and grand juries. I’m in the position of selecting detectives under me to go handle investigations. The litigation unit has 12 detectives and four agents — the agents might be retired officers or men or women who want to be detectives and are waiting for the academy. And we also have a bunch of clerical people who help us out. I have a lieutenant who is in charge of me and then a captain who is in charge of all of us. There’s another sergeant in the unit as well,” she explained. “I never know what each day will bring. I leave a day with my list of what I have to do tomorrow, but I may have to adjust. It’s very unpredictable because I have so many people under me who I’m helping get the job done that they need to and that’s my first priority, and Covid-19 has thrown a few twists and turns into the mix. A few years ago I worked a lot of odd hours, but it’s calmed down since then and that works well for me and my kids.”
The first half of her career — so far — featured a lot of hectic days and nights, as she worked all kinds of odd hours and shifts while trying to work her way into better positions in law enforcement. On top of all that, she was raising two daughters, Angelina, who is now 9 years old, and Victoria, age 7. Those formative years in her career and family didn’t leave much time for anything beyond going to work, getting home and taking care of a household.
But now her kids are getting older, she and her husband are more settled in their careers, and Cugini has begun to think more about her life beyond her career and children. That’s what prompted her to reach out to Laurie Smith at JTAC about getting more involved with the community.
“(Becoming a sergeant) was perfect timing because I had five years of craziness, and I know a lot of people here have a lot more years than that. But for me, as a mom and what my husband does — the five years when I worked all those crazy hours, my kids don’t even remember that, but now I’m home for soccer and all that stuff, so it’s worked out,” Cugini said. “I was mowing the lawn one day and I was thinking to myself about how I got to where I am — and I don’t want to call them regrets, but I would do things a little differently if I knew then what I know now. As an athlete at a school like Maryland, you have no focus on what you’re going to do after college. You don’t care because you’re so into that sport. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have played my fifth year. I should have just been a captain on the bench, and my knee never would have been as bad as it was. I didn’t do anything that would have helped me after college. So, when that final whistle blew, it was an ‘oh, boy’ moment. I’m not exaggerating. It was tears and it was terrifying. I was telling my chief about that and how I wanted to talk to athletes about it, and open their eyes to life. Sports end up, for most of us, being such a small part of our lives.”
Cugini said she was lucky to have great parents and large support system of friends to lean on after her knee surgery. She said she could have easily gotten addicted to pain killers had her parents not kept a watchful eye on every medication she was taking to try to get back to normal.
“I had my parents, thank God, and I had guidance, but that knee surgery, I went home on a morphine drip and went home with a ton of medicine that my dad took from me and wouldn’t let me have. So, I look back at the different path that could have happened, and I wish I would have known. What I’d like to do is, instead of wishing I had changed something, I want to reach out to athletes and maybe I can be a voice in the back of their head to pay attention (to the future). I was just face-timing with one of my former teammates and she does lighting on big movies like Hotel Transylvania. She was like, ‘Jen, why didn’t we pay attention in college? I did communications when Maryland offered this awesome computer graphics design program. I had to start from scratch.’ She’s doing well for herself now, but it’s not only me who feels that way. Athletes figure it out, but could there be an easier way? When I was getting my masters at St. Joe, that’s the first time I really looked into internships with the FBI,” she said. “What put me in with JTAC is I wanted to talk to young athletes — and there are a slew of things you can talk to them about, from opening your eyes to the world but also getting that close-knit group of people who truly care about you. In my bridal party it was all former Maryland soccer teammates, and we prided ourselves on being close. We wouldn’t have let each other go in a wrong direction. We all went through surgeries and they wouldn’t have let me become addicted to all the pain medications. They would have stepped in, and it’s so important to have that support system.”
With so many years of experience in sports as well as law enforcement, Cugini said she wants to draw on all those experiences to make a positive impact on other people’s lives through mentoring. She does some of that already in her department with newer officers, and continues to branch out by involving herself with programs such as the one JTAC is sponsoring.
“The reason why I’m really passionate about my position here, now, is that every new detective who comes out of the academy is assigned to me. I’ve made mistakes and I’m the type of person who will tell you I made a mistake, and why I made the decision I did. Hopefully people will learn from my mistakes, because if you don’t tell people about the mistakes you’ve made they are going to make the same ones,” Cugini said. “I have my job and I love my job, but I also have my life and I have goals in both. I’d love to go back and get my Ph.D. and teach. And not necessarily criminal justice, maybe leadership or something else I might like to get involved with. Here, most people want to climb the ladder, so my next step would be a lieutenant and maybe one day, before I retire, become a captain.
“And I’d also love to get involved in some way with the community and sports,” she added. “I’m trying to show my kids that you shouldn’t just focus your life on one thing. Who knows what they will become, they are 7 and 9 years old, but I want them to be well-rounded.”