Basketball didn’t come naturally for Mariah Cunningham.
It’s taken the Central Valley 6-foot senior some time to figure things out.
When Cunningham started playing at a competitive level in middle school, referees would frequently call fouls on her. She would make contact with another player and thought she should just play through it – even if the contact caused the other player to tumble to the floor.
“I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know what the problem was,” Cunningham said, smiling.
Cunningham still hasn’t met a foul she likes, but she’s adjusted because she knows even in a contact sport sometimes the contact she initiates can create a disadvantage for another player.
She’s still figuring out this basketball thing but her athleticism has allowed her to enjoy success as a four-year starter for the Bears.
And her future? In a word – bright.
“She hasn’t come close to her potential,” CV coach Freddie Rehkow said.
Her club coach agreed.
“She was really, really raw when she started playing for me in eighth grade,” Spokane Stars coach Ron Adams said. “She hasn’t even touched her potential.”
And another coach, the one who will take Cunningham after high school, agrees.
“She has a lot of upside,” Eastern Washington University coach Wendy Schuller said, “and I think she’ll be one of the best pure athletes to ever play (at EWU). Her work ethic is tremendous, and she’ll continue to get better and better because she’s willing to work so hard.”
Cunningham, who was adopted from Haiti by Pat and Dawn Cunningham when she was 6 months old, runs like a gazelle and can jump. She holds the school record in the long jump (18 feet, 3 ½ inches).
For her coaches it’s been a matter of harnassing her abilities and helping her understand what she is capable of doing.
“We’ve tried to get her to learn to control her speed into a way to score instead of a just a way to score,” Rehkow said. “She’s so naturally gifted. She’s one of the most athletic players in the Greater Spokane League.”
Cunningham has been working on developing her perimeter shooting range. She also knows that she must become a better ballhandler for college, where she’s projected to play forward.
“My shooting has definitely improved,” she said. “It’s something I’ve struggled with. I knew I had to work on it because I had to do more than just play inside.
“I have to develop more moves for college, that’s for sure.”
She likens her current dribbling ability to “pounding the ball and running as fast as I can and hoping for the best. There’s lots of room for improvement.”
One of her good friends and companion in the post, Madison Hovren, has enjoyed watching Cunningham’s improvement.
“I definitely have a lot of respect for her – about how hard she works and how when she sets her mind to do something she goes and does it,” Hovren said. “She’s taking a lot more shots this year that she didn’t take before.”
Washington State and Idaho State also recruited Cunningham. But she chose EWU largely because she’s a homebody.
“I really wanted to be close to home,” she said. “When I visited Eastern the girls were really welcoming.”
Cunningham is averaging 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. Both rank second behind Hovren.
She started on the CV team that played in the state championship game two years ago. She wants to lead the Bears back to state.
Year over year, the Bears are arguably the most improved team in the GSL.
“It’s amazing how much we’ve improved from last year,” Cunningham said. “I think we’ve surprised some people.”
Cunningham knows very little about her parents and what life was like in Haiti. Her father died before she was born and her mother died six months after her birth. She was living with her grandmother when she was adopted.
She has a picture in her baby book of her grandmother holding her.
Cunningham has never been back to Haiti but she would like to visit some day.
“I was very fortunate to have been adopted,” she said. “I’m very grateful for my parents. I wouldn’t have grown to be the person I am without them. I’m just blessed.”