DuVal guard Michael Cunningham commits to USC-Upstate


DuVal guard Mike Cunningham walks in front of the Tigers’ bench at an early-season tournament. (Toni Sandys/ The Washington Post)

DuVal guard Michael Cunningham’s tumultuous senior year found its way to a happy ending Monday. Cunningham, who was ruled ineligible for his senior season and was forced to sit out, signed with the University of South Carolina-Upstate — a moment Cunningham never saw coming until it did, and a fitting ending to a senior year filled with ups, downs and the unexpected.

The Maryland Public School Athletic Association ruled this fall that Cunningham was ineligible to play for his senior season for the Tigers because he’d already played four seasons of high school basketball. The DuVal star, who’d been told his season of junior varsity basketball at Archbishop Carroll didn’t count toward his Maryland public school eligibility, was stunned.

“I was shocked, I didn’t expect that to happen,” he said. “It just popped up one day out of nowhere.”

Cunningham wanted to continue to help his teammates, but sitting on the bench and watching the Tigers’ early season games depressed him.

“At first, I was real disappointed. I thought about it all the time,” Cunningham said. “But once I started working out, it took everything off my mind. And I tried to help out the team, still be a part of things, although I couldn’t play.”

In time, basketball workouts every evening at 9:30 p.m. with his trainer and after-school conditioning lessened the sting. Attending DuVal games — and he went to all of them — grew more tolerable. But his recruitment, which took a blow when coaches hoping to determine their interest based on seeing his senior season lost interest, continued to gnaw at the McDonald’s All-American nominee.

“Once I heard I couldn’t play, I thought I was probably going to have to go to junior college,” Cunningham said. “A lot of schools stopped contacting me because of everything that was going on, so that kind of messed me up, too.”

But Cunningham slogged through the doubts and continued to work, pushed by his trainer and aided in making adjustments in his recruitment by mentor Ricky Goings, founder of Everyone Deserves a Shot, which helps area players hoping for a chance to play college basketball.

Though James Madison and a few other schools stayed in touch with the 6-2 combo guard throughout the school year, Cunningham’s winding path to his Division I dreams didn’t take its sharp turn until March, when one of his coaches reached out to a friend at South Carolina-Upstate.

From the start, Spartans’ assistant coach Kyle Perry “was aware” of what he called Cunningham’s “unique situation,” but wasn’t bothered by it.

“It was kind of a non-issue for us,” Perry said. “Kids redshirt all the time. If you redshirt, you don’t play in game situations, so we didn’t really look at it any different than that. If you’re talking about a kid who’s sat out two or three years, that’s a different story, but one year? That wasn’t really an issue for us.”

So the Spartans, 11-7 in the Atlantic Sun Conference last season and 19-15 overall, reached out, watched him work out, and set up an official visit.

“I didn’t know anything about the school until they called — I didn’t even know they existed,” Cunningham said. “But I liked the team, I liked the campus, everyone on the campus was real friendly, and what they’ve got going on with the basketball team really surprised me. I didn’t expect to see what I saw: they’ve got nice stuff going on there with great facilities and real good players.”

Impressed by the school and grateful for the opportunity, Cunningham signed his National Letter of Intent to the SC-Upstate Monday.

“It feels real good,” Cunningham said. “A couple weeks ago, I didn’t know what I was going to be able to do. I didn’t know if anyone was going to offer me or wanted me.”

With three of their top four scorers from the 2013-14 season gone to graduation, Perry and the Spartans were happy to add Cunningham.

“We think he’s got a good chance to really contribute and help us as a freshman,” Perry said. “That’s one of the reasons why we recruited him.”

Cunningham, who averaged more than 18 points per game for the Tigers as a junior, says he’s learned from a year that forced him to turn disappointment into opportunity.

“It was positive because it made me appreciate the game more,” Cunningham said. “When I get out on the court now, I feel like I’m going to play like it’s my last game every game because it can be taken away at any time — which I didn’t realize until this year.”

NUMBER CRUNCH: 2

Number of DuVal guards who committed to play college basketball this week, as Cunningham’s classmate Daquan Williams decided to head to Division III Southern Vermont College — a school that has become a haven for locals.

BREAKFAST LINKS: 

— Yesterday was loaded with showdowns of ranked lacrosse powerhouses, but the No. 1 teams on the boys’ and girls’ side dominated. Read more about how the St. Stephen/St. Agnes girls and Georgetown Prep boys took care of business on a wild Tuesday afternoon.

— In a physical game between two of the top teams in Virginia boys’ soccer, Yorktown and Washington-Lee played to a scoreless tie Tuesday evening in Arlington.

— Dan McCann’s clutch single delivered Atholton a walk-off win over No. 5 Reservoir in a pivotal game between Howard County contenders.

— Wootton star wide receiver Trevon Diggs added to his lengthy list of Division I offers yesterday — read who offered the junior standout Tuesday.

— One of the area’s top scorers in the 2013-14 basketball season made his college choice this week. Check out where Capitol Christian’s Marcquise Reed will play his college basketball

— In case you missed it, W.T. Woodson senior Emily Cox finished her first Boston Marathon Monday and relished every mile of it.

PHOTOS OF THE DAY: 

Scenes from No. 1 St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes’s dominating 12-3 win over No. 2 Georgetown Visitation Tuesday in Alexandria.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: 

No. 3 Good Counsel travels to Broadneck for a private/public girls’ lacrosse showdown that pits last year’s WCAC champions against the 2013 Maryland 4A/3A state champs. The game starts at at 7 p.m.

Chelsea Janes covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.

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Roman Stubbs · April 22, 2014