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Sports Person of the Week
Cunningham Produces in the Paint as a Freshman
Olivia Cunningham moved into a new position on a new team in the midst of a pandemic this year, and the freshman post player handled all those challenges with aplomb. (Photo courtesy of Olivia Cunningham)
Olivia Cunningham established herself a valuable contributor for the Valley Regional girls’ basketball team during the 2021 season. Olivia stepped into a position that she wasn’t familiar with prior to this year, but the freshman post player caught on fast and used her variety of skills to make an impact around the paint.
Olivia had always been a guard while growing up and playing basketball with her older sister Ava, a junior point guard for the Warriors. Olivia believes that her guard skills have provided her with a different wrinkle in her game now that she’s patrolling the post.
“In the past, I’ve typically played guard. This year, I’ve grown a lot, and I ended up playing the post area. That became my position this year,” Olivia says. “That was pretty different for me, learning the position. I think it helped a lot having those guard skills and being able to push the ball in transition. I think that will set me apart from other players in the post. In my mind, I see myself as a guard still, but I’m learning that inside position mentality.”
Olivia prides herself on contributing on both ends of the floor. Olivia’s past experience as a guard gives her a keen eye for everything that’s happening on the court.
“I think I try to do as much I can on both offense and defense. Defensively, I kept trying to stay in front of people and, with my long arms, I can get up and block shots. It’s really helpful on guards,” says Olivia, who lives in Deep River. “On offense, I can dribble and get a shot up. With my height and elevation, I can get shots off. In the post, I was getting offensive rebounds and taking advantage when people don’t box out. I think a lot of my points there are going to come off of offensive rebounds and putting them back up for points.”
The 2021 winter season presented many challenges for student-athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Olivia felt that one of the biggest differences was the fact that the Warriors weren’t playing in front of fans. Olivia feels proud of what her team accomplished without having that “sixth player” in the gym.
“I think it was just a different experience this year. Normally, having spectators is very motivating. We had to motivate ourselves,” says Olivia. “I was pretty proud of my energy. I brought a lot to the team when we were down, even from the bench. I think that’s just being part of team.”
Trying to compete through a pandemic would be difficult for anyone, but in addition to that adjustment, Olivia had to learn the pace and intensity of varsity basketball as an incoming freshman. To Olivia, it seemed like the whole team was figuring out how to coexist in this new environment.
“At first, we all came into it not knowing what to expect. The team was sort of half and half with upper- and lower-classmen. We didn’t have the bond there, because so many of us were new. But toward the end, we trusted each other more, and we were passing the ball well,” Olivia says. “We knew what the other players wanted to do. We were communicating more. We trusted each other more and knew we had each others’ back. We were in it together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also affected Olivia’s offseason work. Olivia plays for the Cobras on the AAU circuit, but she had limited ability to get any time on the court due to the pandemic. Olivia thought that everyone on the Warriors did a good job of getting into playing shape.
“At first, I didn’t really get to see my friends and stuff. I didn’t want to get COVID or have to contact trace. For basketball at first, we were getting practices in with masks, but there was another spike in the fall, and a lot of things got shut down,” says Olivia. “It was hard to stay motivated to keep working when you aren’t around other people motivating you. I thought it was good to rest my body for a bit. That doesn’t normally happen. I usually play year-round. I was probably a bit out of shape, but once we started going, I was able to keep up and get back into shape.”
Luckily, Olivia can always get some shots up with her sister. Olivia believes that their sibling rivalry helped them both become better players.
“I was always on the taller side, but about 7th grade or so, I started passing her in height. Playing with Ava has made me a lot tougher on the court. We’ve always played together. Being aggressive against each other makes us better. It’s that thing that pushes us,” Olivia says. “It’s a lot of chemistry on the court when we play. We’re able to read each other, and we’re able to tell each other if there’s something that we need to do better.”
The Warriors starting playing some solid basketball as the winter season went on and their players really began to understand each other and the schemes that Head Coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt and her squad put together. Unfortunately, Valley had to cancel its postseason run at the Shoreline Conference Tournament after being potentially exposed to COVID-19 in the final week of the regular season.
It was a big disappointment for Olivia and her teammates, but she’s still happy that the Warriors were able to take the court at all this year.
“It’s no one’s fault. Going into the season, there were a lot of delays and pushed-back start dates. We expected the season to end before it even started. It was disappointing, because we got toward the end, and we thought maybe it wouldn’t get taken away,” Olivia says. “I thought we were doing well and coming together at the end. We could have done a good job in the Shorelines and even possibly have won.”
Coach Bickelhaupt enjoyed having Olivia on the team this season. Bickelhaupt can’t wait to see how Olivia continues to grow her game in future campaigns.
“I’m excited to have Olivia as part of our program. She has a lot of potential, and she started to come into her role on the team, mid to end of the season,” Bickelhaupt says. “She’s very vocal, which I love, and isn’t afraid to shoot the ball on the floor. I see an extremely bright future for her, and I’m excited to see her grow into her role.”
Now, Olivia is preparing to play lacrosse for the Warriors this spring. Olivia, who also competes for the Nor’Easter Lacrosse team during the offseason, plays defense on the lacrosse pitch.
“I was pretty athletic, and defense is where I fit. After playing AAU, there were a lot of people that liked playing offense and middie, so I just fit into the defense. People really like scoring goals, but I like getting a steal or getting a knock down,” says Olivia. “Most players want to score, but I just like playing good defense. On offense, you are passing it around, but on defense, when you can hold the other team down for a bit, you can see your own team really getting into it. I really like that. I like doing the little things for the team.”