As a freshman member of the field hockey team at Indiana University, Bloomington, Kayla Cunningham counted down the days on her calendar until she could go home.
Every practice, Cunningham would look at the men’s and women’s soccer field, remembering her days at Whitehall High School in Lehigh County, where she helped lead her team win the district finals.
Before leaving for her second semester at Indiana during winter break, tears ran down her face. She knew she couldn’t stay at Bloomington for four years.
“Being the oldest of five really makes you a lot more homesick, too, because you’re used to having siblings around you all of the time, your parents, and I’m really close with a lot of friends from home,” Cunningham said. “They would get to go visit each other at colleges and I was just stuck in Indiana, so it was really hard for me.”
Cunningham comes from a family filled with athleticism, especially among her three sisters and brother.
Her oldest sister, Kourtney, is a sophomore forward on Rider University’s women’s soccer team. The two squared off against each other on Sept. 1 in New Jersey, where the Owls won 1-0 in overtime.
Kayla Cunningham’s two other sisters, Kylee and Cassidy, are both still in high school.
Kylee Cunningham, a senior at Whitehall, and Cassidy Cunningham, a junior, both play soccer, field hockey and run track. Kylee Cunningham also plays basketball.
Tyler Cunningham, who is in seventh grade, wrestles and plays football.
Kayla Cunningham said growing up in a competitive household groomed her into the player she is today.
“That’s the only thing I knew growing up, was like to be a competitor,” Cunningham said. “I always wanted to win. I remember playing kickball outside with our neighbors. I would get so mad and competitive if we weren’t winning. It would cause a fight in the neighborhood. My sister would be like, ‘Kayla, it’s OK. Calm down.’”
At three years old, Kayla Cunningham’s father, Timothy, who is the wrestling coach at Whitehall, had her practicing with the team until the end of practice at 6 p.m.
Kayla Cunningham participated in the team’s drills like conditioning, running and even began challenging her father’s wrestlers in push-up contests.
Timothy Cunningham said his daughter did 99 push-ups in a row at five years old.
“She could always do more push-ups than any of my wrestlers,” Timothy Cunningham said. “Like she would compete with them, and she would never stop until the wrestlers gave up. She would say, ‘I’m not going to give up, so you might as well give up.’”
On Whitehall’s girl’s soccer team, Cunningham was a four-time National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-Region, All-State and Lehigh Valley Conference MVP. She also broke District 11 soccer records by scoring 166 goals and racking up 82 assists.
As a member of Whitehall’s field hockey team, she was a two-time LVC MVP, all-state and three-time LVC all-first team.
She was recruited by soccer programs like Vanderbilt University, American University, the University of Michigan, the University of Miami and the University of Oregon. For field hockey, she talked to Penn State and was recruited by La Salle, St. Joseph’s, Drexel University, Lehigh University, Lafayette College and Indiana.
A fallout with a club soccer team hurt Cunningham’s confidence on the soccer field. As a result, she decided to play field hockey at the collegiate level.
But when she decided she wanted to switch back to playing soccer, she had confidence she could pull it off. Coach Seamus O’Connor, who saw Cunningham play while scouting senior center midfielder Elaine Byerley, agreed.
“I knew it from talking to her and talking to her family it wasn’t going to be a problem,” O’Connor said. “She’s just a very hard worker and I knew she was going to put the time in to get better and to work on her foot skills. She’s just a natural athlete. She can pick up any sport and be good at it.”
Since coming to Temple in 2014, Cunningham has seven goals, four assists and 18 points. This year, she’s tied for second on the team in goals and points.
“She’s blossomed in terms of leadership, this is the most I’ve heard her talk this year,” O’Connor said. “I hear her more in practice, and I think going forward into next year, I expect to see it more in the offseason, too.”
Tom Ignudo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Ignudo5.