A Breed Apart: Siblings Find Athletic Success at Every Level

COTUIT – If you think about it, it’s pretty rare to be named a captain in any sport at a school that has close to 2,000 students.

It’s even more amazing when three siblings are all named captains in various sports at the varsity level in the same high school and then all three go on to compete at the collegiate level and in a meaningful, not just perfunctory, way.

Meet the Cunninghams of Cotuit: Emily, Hannah and Tom.

Simmons College graduate Emily Cunningham led a superlative high school and collegiate softball career and is now coaching in the collegiate ranks. Photo courtesy of Simmons Athletics

Simmons College graduate Emily Cunningham led a superlative high school and collegiate softball career and is now coaching in the collegiate ranks.
Photo courtesy of Simmons Athletics

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Emily, who graduated earlier this year from Simmons College where she staged a collegiate hall of fame-caliber softball career, was the engine of the Barnstable High School softball team from 2007 through 2010. A talented catcher but even more superior hitter from an early age, Emily captained former head coach Jen Police’s 2009 and 2010 Red Raider squads in her junior and senior years. She was a three-time Old Colony League all-star as well as a two-time BHS Most Valuable Player.

Combined with her love of the martial arts and basketball as a burgeoning athlete coming up through the ranks, softball became the apex of her interest early on.

“The love for the sport is what drove me to compete,” she said earlier this week, readying to come home for the holidays from Boston. “I held myself to a high standard to work hard. Playing for my teammates was another reason why I had a strong drive to compete.”

At Simmons, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science in May and became a certified Emergency Medical Technician in August at Boston University, Emily’s drive to be the best almost immediately came shining through. In the spring of 2011, she was named the Great Northeast Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year and named to the GNAC All-Conference team at first base.

This would be the first of four consecutive seasons she would be named to the GNAC All-Conference team, not to fail to mention literally more than a dozen other awards and honors all leading up to this year’s fantastic 27-10 record and the school’s first-ever bid in the GNAC championship game last spring. Not only had Simmons never played for a collegiate title prior to last spring, but it had also not reached the postseason in a decade (2004). Emily, a two-time captain at Simmons, was the central reason behind her team’s success, although she’d never admit it. She finished second on the team in batting average, hitting .380 and second on the team in RBI with 35 and it was her two home runs in the GNAC semifinals that led the Sharks into their first championship appearance. Cunningham made just two errors all season at first, for a .993 fielding percentage. She was also named to the 2014 NFCA Division III All-Region Softball Team for the third time in her career. She was recently hired to serve as an assistant softball coach at Lesley University in Boston.

Simmons College All-Conference second baseman Hannah Cunningham said she feels her siblings fed off each other's positive energy toward success in athletics and in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Simmons Athletics

Simmons College All-Conference second baseman Hannah Cunningham said she feels her siblings fed off each other’s positive energy toward success in athletics and in the classroom.
Photo courtesy of Simmons Athletics

Now picture that every step of the way she achieved all this with her little sister right by her side.

Hannah Cunningham, now a senior softball captain at Simmons readying for the 2015 season, has pound-for-pound mirrored her older sister’s success since day one.

It’s enough to make one wonder just exactly what their parents were feeding these two while they were growing up in the sleepy little seaside village of Cotuit, the hinterlands, of sorts, of the Town of Barnstable.

“We provided the opportunity to pursue any activity that interested them,” said the girls’ mother, Kathy Van Twyver. “Emily and Hannah always loved team sports. They started playing ‘Learn to skate’ hockey at the Kennedy Rink in kindergarten and then played baseball and soccer.  Thomas tried hockey and baseball, but didn’t really take to those.  He started running in middle school and hasn’t stopped except to row for a couple of seasons. I never played team sports, I was a dancer, but their dad was a wrestler in high school.”

Well these parents did something right.

Hannah, a speedy, hard-hitting middle infielder at Simmons, was also a softball captain at Barnstable High School, and turned in not only more career multiple-hit games than her hard-slugging older sister, but more multiple-hit games than any other Red Raider in recent memory. It was not much of a stretch to think that she, too, would be recruited to play at Simmons.

Also named a two-time captain for the Sharks, Hannah was a GNAC All-Conference second baseman as a sophomore and was named again to the GNAC All-Conference team this year. Standing at a diminutive 5’2” as compared to her stalking 5’9” older sibling, the two sisters’ physical differences never got in the way of their shared love of the game.

“I think we all share in each other’s successes,” Hannah said. “Whenever one would have a big game or a big meet, we would try to be there for support. For me, I was actually able to share in the successes with Emily because we were on the same team.”

Which brings up the youngest of the three siblings – Boston University sophomore cross country star Tom Cunningham.

Tom Cunningham, seen here in 2012 running for Barnstable High School, chose running as a sport he wouldn't have to compete against his sisters in. Photo courtesy of Kathy VanTwyver.

Tom Cunningham, seen here in 2012 running for Barnstable High School, chose running as a sport he wouldn’t have to compete against his sisters in.
Photo courtesy of Kathy VanTwyver.

Growing up in the shadow of two immensely popular and successful sisters is one thing, but add star athlete to the repertoire and a baby brother couldn’t help but feel – initially, at least – slightly intimidated. For Tom, though, he figured out a solution to all the fuss over his older sisters.

“I started running mainly because it was one of the only things Hannah and Emily didn’t do,” he said in between final exams this week. “They played soccer, softball, hockey, basketball… I wanted to do something that they didn’t do so I decided to join my middle school (track) team and it turned out I was alright.”

Well, add humility to the characteristics that comprise this trio of exceptional athletes.

A two-time cross country captain at Barnstable High School, Tom helped lead the Red Raiders to three Old Colony League championship titles including an undefeated season his sophomore year (8-0 in 2010) and an 8-1 season his senior year. All-in-all, Tom ran for two different coaches at Barnstable High, earned four varsity letters and was twice named an Old Colony League All-Star and he achieved all of that running not only in the shadow of his older sisters, but in the dust, quite often of one of the Red Raiders all-time great long distance men, Greg Hardy (Tufts University).

Still, his decision to run at the Division 1 Collegiate level did not come quickly. Not recruited like his sisters had been at Simmons, Tom nevertheless decided just as he always has to make a name for himself. He e-mailed legendary Boston University head coach Bruce Lehane and Lehane reviewed the industrious Cunningham’s high school numbers.

“It was a last-minute decision to run in college,” Tom said. “If anything, I wanted to run (in) Division 3, but it turned out that BU was the best option for me (academically)… he (Lehane) said I could run based on the times I ran in high school.”

Still, a walk-on spot on any college team can be daunting in any sport, not to fail to factor in that the Terriers boast some of the best long-distance runners in the country. While his older sisters seemed to flourish wherever a group of like-minded athletes and a mitt and a bat could be found, the youngest of the Cunningham’s had selected a sport that thrived on sheer individualism: he was on his own to succeed or fail.

“Walking on was a little intimidating,” he said, “because some of my teammates are pretty high-caliber athletes. Some of them are the top tier runners in the country. BU is in the Patriot League which includes Army, Navy, American, Bucknell, Lehigh, Lafayette, Colgate and Holy Cross but for cross country and track most races are invitational so can race different schools and athletes from around the country.”

At the helm at Boston University for 29 years, though, Lehane is not one to take recruits or walk-ons lightly. To tell the youngest Cunningham he had a shot truly meant something.

“What I seek for the runners I coach is their ‘gold medal’ performance. A personal gold medal performance is what might be called a supreme achievement for that individual. For what athletics is all about is the pursuit of excellence,” Lehane’s coaching philosophy states.

While excellence might be something that all three Cunningham siblings and countless other athletic siblings across the world might share, one thing that is not so common is the ability to lead others to success in the process. All three of the Cunningham athletes were in agreement as to the source of their knack for helping teammates succeed.

“Our leadership skills definitely came from our parents and how we were raised,” Hannah said. “We were taught the value of hard work at a very young age when we started working at their restaurant. We were also involved in Kung Fu for about eight years which taught us discipline, respect and determination.”

Former Barnstable High School standout athletes Emily, Tom and Hannah Cunningham have all excelled at the collegiate level. Photo courtesy of Kathy VanTwyver

Former Barnstable High School standout athletes Emily, Tom and Hannah Cunningham have all excelled at the collegiate level.
Photo courtesy of Kathy VanTwyver

Like any parents trying to earn a living while ensuring their children seek out opportunities to learn and grow, it can be overwhelming to make it all function in a culture today that undervalues the old-school family dynamic while seemingly idolizing and placing too much emphasis on organized athletics and activities. For Paul Cunningham and Kathy VanTwyver, though, there always seemed a healthy way to balance life so that lessons could be drawn from the opportunities they afforded their kids, even with the added pressure of running a restaurant. The couple are the former owners of The Mills restaurant in Marstons Mills.

“The running around was challenging at times, but because Emily and Hannah are only one year apart and tended to play on the same teams it wasn’t too bad,” Van Twyver said. “I think that the benefits of staying out of trouble, friends, interpersonal skills and leadership that my kids got from playing sports are worth that extra effort.”

And for the three Cunningham siblings, it was an effort well spent.

Sean Walsh is the sports editor for www.capecod.com. His email is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @coachwalshccbm.