Rock Bridge girls basketball's Sophie Cunningham succeeds behind older sister

Friday, March 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Rock Bridge guard Sophie Cunningham drives to the basket during the Class 5 District 9 Girls Basketball Championships on March 2 at Hickman High School. The Bruins defeated the Kewpies 50-38.

COLUMBIA — Sophie Cunningham might not have been a coach's dream without her older sister.

Before the sophomore standout on the Rock Bridge girls basketball team made the Class 5 all-state team her freshman year, before she helped the Bruins roll to last season's state title, she just wanted to beat her older sister, Lindsey Cunningham, in a game of P-I-G.

"We played a lot of games when we were growing up," said Lindsey Cunningham, who redshirted at Missouri this year. "We couldn't play a game in the driveway without it turning into a fight, a battle. She wanted to beat me from the first time she could shoot the ball."

Sophie Cunningham's competitiveness has helped her lead the Bruins back to the Show-Me Showdown at Mizzou Arena. With Cunningham at the helm, Rock Bridge will match up against Blue Springs at 8:20 p.m. Friday in the Class 5 semifinals. The Bruins beat Blues Springs for last season's title.

Sophie Cunningham has been surrounded by athletes her entire life. Her father, Jim Cunningham, was a football standout at Rock Bridge in the 1970s before starring at Missouri, while mother, Paula Cunningham, was a member of Missouri's track team in the '80s under her maiden name of Primus. Even Sophie Cunningham's aunt, Stacy Hoffman, was a member of the Missouri women's basketball team.

"My family has always supported me," Sophie Cunningham said. "They've always been there for me, helping me become a better player and a better person."

Sophie Cunningham's family began to help her hone her basketball skills in the second grade, with her mother focusing on ball handling while her father pitted her against her older sister in shooting contests.

Soon, those shooting contests turned into intense one-on-one duels that usually ended with a familiar theme.

"We would always pretend the game was on the line," Lindsey Cunningham said. "Sometimes, we'd have an imaginary state championship game."

In these imaginary state title contests one of the sisters would have the ball, always down by two points, while the other sister started the timer at five seconds. 

Whether it was one sister swishing a winning 3-pointer or the other shooting crucial free throws after a foul was called, the games always ended with the sisters going at it. For the sisters, the love affair with basketball was just beginning, and the games continue today, though only sparingly.

So it came as no surprise that Sophie Cunningham's talent surfaced long before she set foot inside a Rock Bridge gym, and her skills started to turn heads in middle school.

It was around that time that Lindsey Cunningham began to earn attention for her play as well, and the recruiting process geared up for both sisters.

When it came time for her to choose a Division I team, Lindsey Cunningham spurned former Rock Bridge teammate Katherine Harry and DePaul in favor of Robin Pingeton and Missouri. 

"It just felt right going to Missouri," said Lindsey Cunningham about her commitment. "I told Sophie not to come (to Missouri) because I was there. I wanted her to have good reasons outside of that."

But it wasn't long before Sophie Cunningham pledged to join her sister, offering Missouri her oral commitment. The sisters were going to be reunited.

"It's exciting to think about us playing together again," Sophie Cunningham said, "but that's a long ways off, and I'm just thinking about the next game."

She will play the next game with the same desire that helped her win some of those imaginary state championship games years ago.  

And her older sister will be in the stands watching, maybe even counting down the seconds in her head.

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