A year ago, Michael Cunningham believed his path to a college basketball scholarship required a pre-dawn wake-up call. He’d rise at 5:30 a.m. and ride the Metro’s Orange Line in its entirety with a handful of other students. At the Vienna station, they could catch a bus that would deliver them to Paul VI by the opening bell.
These days, Cunningham boards the school bus near his Lanham home for the roughly four-minute ride to DuVal. After a frustrating year at the Fairfax private school in which he struggled to earn minutes for the eventual Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion, the junior guard has found a niche on the court at his neighborhood school.
Cunningham has averaged a team-high 20.1 points per game and nearly recorded a triple-double with 32 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on Saturday night as the Tigers dropped Reservoir, 82-67, for their sixth straight victory.
“Last year, I was mainly a practice guy,” said Cunningham, who recorded 50 total points in 25 appearances for the Panthers last winter. “I didn’t really get into many games. This year, I get to show my skills on the court. I get to be the go-to guy.”
Cunningham began his high school career playing on the junior varsity squad at Carroll and made the move to Paul VI for his sophomore year, spurred, in part, by the chance to play alongside Stan Robinson, his former teammate at Dr. Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Mitchellville.
Robinson – an Indiana recruit who is playing his senior season at Findlay Prep in Nevada – went on to earn second-team All-Met honors in helping the Panthers to their first WCAC championship and the City Title, while Cunningham’s role decreased as the season progressed.
Cunningham said he had decided by midseason to leave Paul VI but never told anyone at the school until after the team’s unprecedented run had ended so as not to become a distraction.
“It was a good experience,” Cunningham said. “I got to play with those guys every day in practice, and I think it kind of made me more hungry to play better this year.”
On the AAU circuit, Cunningham had played with Team Takeover, but after a quiet high school season, he was relegated from the top team in his age group to a secondary squad to begin the summer and soon left the program. Instead, he passed the time working on his fitness, often working out at the Glenn Dale Community Center.
When Cunningham first began playing with DuVal, first-year coach Lafayette Dublin felt the guard was holding back, at times. As Cunningham has become more comfortable and used to playing about 30 minutes per night, he’s blossomed into a leader for the Tigers (6-2, 3-2 PG 4A).
“Every game I’ve told him to get better, and he has,” Dublin said. “He’s a special kid. I think the area is just beginning to see the kind of talent he has.”
Dublin, a DuVal grad who replaced longtime coach Artie Walker, has taken to holding at least one practice per week before school, bringing the team in at 6 a.m. to free them up to catch up on their studies in the evening. While the new policy has brought some grumbling, the coach said Cunningham, no stranger to early mornings, is usually the first player in the gym for those workouts.
Though Cunningham understandably had drifted off the radar for most recruiters, Dublin, a former Towson forward, has been diligently reaching out to his connections across the country in recent weeks, hoping to build some buzz. He said College of Charleston has shown particular interest early on.
Now at his third high school in three seasons, Cunningham said he expects to be back next year and graduate from the Prince George’s County public school.
“I’m liking DuVal,” Cunningham said. “That’s where I want to be.”
A Poolesville graduate fresh out of the University of Maryland in 2006, Kenny Kramek took a job coaching a basketball team made up of local sixth graders. Now Kramek is in his first year as the varsity coach at his alma mater, and a few of those same players have helped get his tenure off to a strong start.
After winning the Clarksburg Holiday Tournament last week, Poolesville is 7-1 and unbeaten in Montgomery 3A/2A play, tied atop the league standings with Wheaton. The Falcons, who host the Knights on Thursday, have demonstrated remarkable balance with five different players reaching the 20-point mark at least once in their first eight games.
“Every game has been close in the fourth quarter,” Kramek said, “With the basketball IQ these kids have, they’re making the plays at the end and finding ways to win.”
Kramek, 29, inherited a squad that brought back three of its top four scorers, taking over in May after Tom Lang stepped down to spend more time with his family.
Last year, Poolesville rallied from a 3-5 start to finish third in Montgomery 3A/2A. The Falcons have carried the momentum under Kramek, following up a 34-31 loss at Gaithersburg on Dec. 8 with six straight wins. That run includes a 62-61 double-overtime victory over defending league champ Watkins Mill on Dec. 19.
“It’s kind of come full circle,” said Kramek, who was the program's junior varsity coach for two years before spending last season at Clarksburg. “I’ve known these kids ever since they were in 4th or 5th grade, so the transition has been very easy for everybody.”
Senior Kirby Carmack, who led the football team to the Maryland 2A playoffs this season as quarterback, runs the offense from point guard, while senior Collin Turner has emerged as the team’s most consistent scorer in his first season of high school competition.
Turner had struggled to get academically eligible before this year but has averaged 12.5 points per game and Kramek called him “as good as anyone in the county right now.” The 6-foot guard scored 23 of his career-high 27 points in the second half of a comeback win over Damascus on Dec. 17.