At almost 6-foot-4 in her volleyball shoes, Cara Cunningham, the Robinson middle blocker with the long, swinging ponytail, has a problem most high school players don’t have to worry about: she regularly gets her head above the net.
That’s not easy -- a women’s volleyball net in high school is 7 feet, 4 1/8-inches tall.
Her leaping ability, when combined with her wingspan, means she can touch over 10 feet and cover shots to either side of her willowy frame. Balls right at her get blocked, and shots that go around either go out of bounds or are easy for her teammates to return.
But one night last spring in an intra-squad scrimmage with her Virginia Elite club team, she was up against 6-foot-1 Claire Crutchfield, the star outside hitter who recently graduated from Bishop O’Connell in Arlington.
“And she just pounded me, right in the head,” said Cunningham after a recent 3-0 Rams victory over rival Lake Braddock.
The result: a debilitating concussion that kept her off the court for about two months.
“It was a lateral concussion, because the ball hit the side of my head, and apparently lateral concussions are worse because they take a lot longer to heal,” she said. “I was right in the middle of exams at the end of junior year, so it was not fun. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for almost two weeks straight because my head was pounding. I would look at a book for about five minutes and my symptoms would become worse. So I’m glad to be back, and glad to be healthy.”
That’s good news for Cunningham, but bad news for the other volleyball teams in the area. As she showed against Lake Braddock, she’s back in shape and intent upon finishing her high school career strong before heading to Villanova University next year, where, interestingly, she’ll join Crutchfield as a member of the Wildcats.
Cunningham came late to volleyball, which makes her success even more impressive. Always tall, thanks to amazing genes from her athletic parents and grandparents, she tried out for the team as an almost six-foot-tall ninth-grader at Thomas Jefferson. Around the same time, her older sister, Kristen, was finishing a college volleyball career that took her to both the University of Kentucky and Virginia Tech. It couldn’t be too hard to block shots or spike a ball over a net, right?
Even though she hurt her ankle on the second day of practice, she made the J.V. squad and played well enough that coaches encouraged her to try out for a local club team, NVVA Select. Trying out for the 15-and-under team, Cunningham’s size and potential impressed her new coaches and she was elevated to the 16-year-old team playing a national schedule.
Cunningham was hooked on volleyball, and made the emotional decision to leave T.J. and its stellar academic program in order to attend Robinson, where she would have more time for sports and following in the footsteps of her athletic family members. Kristen (6-1), a member of Robinson’s class of 2004, starred in high school and college and went on to play professionally in Germany. Her older brother, Cliff (6-9), made the Patriot District basketball second team at Lake Braddock in 1999. A leg injury kept his career from going further. Their father, Rob (6-8), was a member of the basketball team at the University of Texas, and that’s where he met Linda (5-11), a diver, at an Austin hangout.
But the most impressive athletic credentials of the Cunningham family belong to Cara’s grandparents: Linda’s mother, Minna Hamner, who qualified for the Danish Olympic team in the 1940s (the Games were canceled due to World War II) and is still winning national masters swimming titles at 90; and Rob’s father, Bobby (6-4), a starter on the 1957 University of North Carolina basketball team that won the national championship against Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks.
“We’re kind of an athletic family,” Linda Cunningham said with a knowing smile. Her brother even had a five-year minor-league baseball career as a pitcher in the New York Mets system.
“It must have been something in the water, or that beer,” Rob said of that night in Austin when he and two buddies met their future wives at a bar called The Keg. “[Later on] we had a couple conversations that we could make a super race, somewhere along the line. It’s turned out we’ve been very lucky, and very blessed.”
There’s no doubt that genes have conspired to make Cara, all these years later, the most recent Cunningham prospect. But it’s not quite so simple. Lots of kids with tall, athletic parents fail to capitalize on their genetic backgrounds.
“She’s a little bit of a perfect storm,” said David Epstein, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer who recently published a book called ‘The Sports Gene,’ that looks at the intersection of anecdotal and genetic evidence when it comes to successful athletes.
When told of Cunningham’s family background and physical traits, Epstein noted the combination of leaping ability, wingspan (her father’s dress shirts have 39-inch sleeves) and general athleticism makes her a particularly strong sports prospect as she enters the next phase of her career.
“Every study I’ve ever looked at finds that general athleticism speeds the rate at which an individual can learn sport-specific skills. There’s a lot of sport-specific skill in volleyball and it sounds like she’s picking it up incredibly quickly,” Epstein said, noting that genes contribute not only to an athlete’s physical appearance, but also one’s ability to learn quickly, which speaks to Cunningham’s rise from a novice to a Division 1 athlete in just three calendar years. “She’s anomalously fast getting to that level.”
Josh Steinbach, the Villanova coach, can’t speak specifically about Cunningham due to NCAA restrictions, but he did say any player with the above characteristics would catch his eye.
“We’ve spent a good deal of time trying to put together a more physical volleyball team over the past couple of years,” he said. “The league is getting bigger and more physical so [size] is always something we’re looking for.”
When it comes to her younger sister, Kristen Cunningham is a huge fan, but she also knows the sport. So it means something when she says: “the way she moves, she’s quick for a girl her size. That’s very rare.”
While Cara’s siblings haven’t lived at home for years, her grandmother, who still swims 1,000 yards four times per week, is right there in a cottage on the Cunningham’s property in Fairfax Station, setting an example for her granddaughter.
“She’s such a delight to be around. She’s hilarious. She’s smart. She’s such an inspiration,” Cunningham said. “I know I want to be just like her when I grow up. I want to be an example like that for my children and my grandchildren.”
“Here’s grandma, 90 years old, swimming four times a week and winning gold medals,” Rob said. “It’s big shoes to fill, but a good example for Cara and all my kids to see.”
A recent loss to Langley put the Rams at 2-2 heading into this week, but there’s still time for Robinson to refine its game: playoffs don’t begin until November. Idil Yonis, a four-year varsity player for the Rams, remembers when Cunningham came out for the team in 2011.
“She was tall and awkward, but now she’s really found her way,” said Yonis, who played on club teams with Cunningham. “It’s been great to see how she matches up with other good players, not only from around the state, but from other regions.”
While Cunningham is excited to head off to college, the Robinson season is her first priority. And the driving force behind her game this year is a desire to show people that not only does she have the potential to be good sometime in the future, to capitalize on her genetic gifts, but she also wants to be good today.
“When I go on the court, I want to be the player the other team is scared of. I want them to say, ‘Look out for that girl, she’s going to put the ball down, she’s going to block you in the face,’” Cunningham said. “It’s this mindset I have that I want to be a big threat.”