Rock Bridge volleyball freshman smiles her way to success

Thursday, September 29, 2011 | 11:41 p.m. CDT; updated 12:41 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 30, 2011
Freshman hitter Sophie Cunningham (far right) attempts to block the ball during the Rock Bridge Pink Out game against Hickman on September 12. Though this is Cunningham's first season, coach Tatum Anderson says her leadership abilities are already present on the court.

COLUMBIA — The Rock Bridge volleyball team played a serving game at practice Tuesday much like a game of H-O-R-S-E in basketball. Sophie Cunningham was paired with teammate Ali Kreklow. After each of Kreklow’s serves, Cunningham would attempt to serve her ball to the same spot, failing more times than not.

When it was Cunningham’s turn to serve first, she tried for a short serve to the front row on the floor.

Thursday's results

The Rock Bridge girls volleyball team lost 25-18, 25-11 at Helias on Thursday to fall to 18-5 for the season.

Sophie Cunningham led the team with six kills and six digs. Kayla Cheadle had four kills, and twin sister Chayla Cheadle had two and a half blocks. Ali Kreklow had nine assists, and Audrey Holt had one ace for the Bruins.

It was a tough loss for Rock Bridge after a seven-game winning streak. Bruins coach Tatum Anderson said her young team struggled against an older and more experienced Helias squad.

“We came out strong in the first game,” Anderson said. “We just couldn’t get over the mental hump.”

The Bruins will take a few days off before hosting Eldon on Monday. Anderson said she is looking forward to having a weekend off after playing in tournaments the past three weekends.

“You gotta risk it to get the biscuit,” she said before serving the ball. It went long.

“I didn’t get the biscuit,” she said with a smile as she ran after the ball.

Between serves, Cunningham jokingly argued that Kreklow wasn’t playing fair.

“Cheat if you want,” Cunningham said, laughing.

Throughout the entire practice, Cunningham kept a smile on her face, and games are no different. She keeps her head up even when everyone else’s is down. She smiles even when things aren’t going well.

Her smile is a big part of who she is and what she brings to the team.

In a Sept. 13 match against Hermann, the Bruins had lost the first game and were behind in the second. But Cunningham was still smiling, clapping and encouraging her teammates. Rock Bridge came back to win the second game and the third to take the match. Her leadership on the court stood out, especially coming from the youngest player on the team.

“As a freshman, she has taken charge on the court and does a great job of staying poised,” Bruins coach Tatum Anderson said. "Many times you see her as the one gathering the group during tight game situations. No one has told her to do this, just her natural instinct as a leader and competitor.”

A 6-foot-1 freshman hitter from Jefferson Junior High, Cunningham is one of the team's best players on offense. She is leading the team in kills this season, and last weekend, she put up a team-high 45 kills in five games at the Troy Buchanan Invitational. Her work ethic, leadership ability and attitude along with her talent and athleticism have helped lead the Bruins' volleyball team to a record of 18-5 this season.

She anticipates more success in November, when she plans to compete for the Bruins girls basketball team. She said she hopes to have the chance to play alongside her older sister, senior Lindsey Cunningham.

Sophie Cunningham said she thinks that it’s her job to be a leader and use her personality to help her team in any way she can, both in volleyball and basketball. She has known her teammates for several years and isn’t afraid to speak up, even though they are all older than her.

“We all just do better when we’re happy and having fun,” Sophie Cunningham said. “Each team needs someone to speak up and kind of talk out on the court. Once one person gets talking then everyone gets talking, and that just makes everyone do better.”

Sophie Cunningham’s mother, Paula Cunningham, said she and her husband have always encouraged their daughter to carry her easygoing personality onto the court. Paula Cunningham said she makes eye contact with her daughter during games and reminds her to put on a smile even when things aren’t going well.

“If she’s happy and having fun on the court, it really does reflect in her play,” Paula Cunningham said.

Before and after games and at practices you will see Sophie Cunningham with her arm around the other players skipping across the court.

“She is one of the friendliest kids I know,” Anderson said. “I swear, she probably knows everyone in Columbia. She always has a smile on her face, and you can tell she enjoys life and everyone that is a part of it.”

Sophie Cunningham has a lot of friends not only on the volleyball team, but in other sports as well. Her circle of friends is continually growing.

“She’s always friendly, and she’s always smiling,” Paula Cunningham said. “She has one of those personalities that people are just drawn to.”

Sophie Cunningham wears two cross necklaces around her neck every day. Before games she holds one of them in her hand and prays. She attributes her success in sports and her approach to life to her religious background.

“I depend a lot on my faith,” Sophie Cunningham said.

Her mother said she is truly devoted.

“It’s one thing to go through the motions, but she is the first one to say ‘well God has a plan,’ and she really believes that,” Paula Cunningham said.

For now, that plan involves sports. Sophie Cunningham, 15, has already orally committed to play basketball at MU, where her sister has also committed to play. She said she is interested in playing collegiate volleyball as well but isn’t yet sure if she will be able to manage both.

Sports consume her life and have for as long as she can remember. When she was too young to play, her mother used to bring her along to her sister’s basketball practices. Sophie Cunningham plays volleyball and basketball for Rock Bridge during the school year and for the Kansas City Eclipse club basketball team in the summer. She said her best friends are her teammates, and she spends what little free time she has at other Rock Bridge and MU sporting events.

Sophie Cunningham said she realizes the small things are the foundation for getting her where she wants to be. She takes her schoolwork seriously, is close to her family, relies on her faith and stays humble. Her personality shines through and people can’t help but notice.

“Sophie is a great kid; you can’t help but love her,” Anderson said.

Most of all she remembers that she plays sports to have fun. She said that at the end of the day, there’s no other reason to do it.

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