Sophie Cunningham is Rock Bridge girls basketball's 'goofy' star

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 21, 2014
Sophie Cunningham drives against Jefferson City in the Class 5, District 9 semifinals on March 6 at Rock Bridge High School. Rock Bridge won 54-24.

COLUMBIA — There's a childhood game called Little Sally Walker, in which participants tag into a circle and create dance moves that other players must imitate.

In the locker room before basketball games, Rock Bridge junior Sophie Cunningham has been known to get her Sally on.

"She’s just the kind of person where you just laugh and shake your head," said senior teammate Audrey Holt.

But fans at Mizzou Arena for Thursday's state semifinal game against St. Joseph's Academy won't see this side of Cunningham.

The Cunningham who will take the court at 5:10 p.m. will be a 6-foot-1 guard who instead exudes intensity and confidence — the traits that helped her win Gatorade’s State Girls Basketball Player of the Year for Missouri.

"It doesn’t matter what the score is," said Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel. "To Sophie, the game is tied, and we need a bucket. Or, we need a stop."

Maybe the stage this week is too big for a pre-game edition of Little Sally Walker, but Cunningham will likely still keep it loose before the Bruins' final games.

Dancing and singing aren't traditional ways to get in the zone, but Cunningham says she and Holt will sing anything to prepare to play. Miley Cyrus' song "23" is one of their favorites.

Nagel even had to change the locker room rules last season to limit excessive goofiness, but she doesn't begrudge Cunningham's approach to the game.

"I think what I love most, and the team loves most, is she’s able to laugh at herself," Nagel said. "She’s just a loose player who wants to have fun."

Maybe she's loose, but it doesn't look that way to spectators. Cunningham is an all-purpose assassin on the court. When she was selected as the state's top player last week, she was averaging 18.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

In the summer before her freshman year, Cunningham verbally committed to Missouri — the school at which her sister, Lindsey, currently plays. Because Cunningham committed so early, there haven't been a ton of other offers. But Cunningham is quite the prospect. Physical and agile, she plays at the top of Rock Bridge's 1-3-1 press. Offensively, she gets her points on both pull-up moves and drives to the hoop.

She's a different type of player than Lindsey — a redshirt freshman averaging 1.5 points for the Tigers this season.

"I'm behind the scenes, doing dirty work. She can score the ball from anywhere,” Lindsey said. "I think (people) expect me to be jealous. I can't think of anyone else in the world I'd rather win these awards than her."

The sisters played together at Rock Bridge two seasons ago, when Sophie was a freshman. The Bruins won the state title that season, as well as last year, and are now vying for a three-peat.

Sophie used to tag along with her older sister and play against the older kids.

"At times, she was being an annoying little sister, but I’m so glad she did that," Lindsey said.

Lindsey may be the reason Sophie's goofiness doesn't reach the court. Consistency and effort are the traits Sophie most attributes to her sister.

"She’s helped me push through and always put my heart on the floor," Sophie said. "We would always push each other. Literally, coach used to say."

Lindsey and Sophie learned the game from their parents, Jim and Paula Cunningham. Jim taught shooting, and Paula taught ball-handling and other fundamentals. Lindsey says that every drill she and her sister did with their right hand, they had to do twice with their left.

The family played long before the girls could even force the ball up to the rim, which hung on the light pole at their grandparents' farm.

It's the same spot where Paula learned to play years ago, because, in the Cunningham household, basketball is a family affair.

Jim, Paula and Paula's parents — Paul and Elizabeth "Sissy" Primus — all played basketball in high school, and Paula's sister, Stacey (Primus) Hoffman played at Missouri. Paula's parents rarely miss a game that either of their granddaughters play in.

"Sissy" — a name many know Elizabeth Primus as — is regularly the loudest fan in the gym.

Bruins fans know her voice, as she often exhibits the "crazy" that Sophie says runs in the family.

"Our family just hates losing," Sophie said. "They’re not as calm (during the game) as I seem to be."

The best chance fans have of seeing Sophie show her "crazy" on the court is if she has a bout of clumsiness.

"As agile as she is, it always seems like she’s tripping over lines," Paula said.

The best girls basketball player in the state of Missouri just might be a clumsy goofball.

During a newspaper photo shoot Monday, Sophie asked how she should hold the basketball she was given. She was told, "however." Cunningham proceed to lift the ball in front of her face and emit a grunt similar to that of a Tusken Raider

"In practice," Holt said, "there hasn't been a single day where we’re not laughing or she’s not making a stupid comment."

Supervising editor is Mark Selig.

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