Editor's note: This article is one of three profiles on the men's lacrosse team's star senior defensemen before their game against Cornell on Saturday for senior night. Go here for a profile of defender Chad Wiedmaier and here for goalie Tyler Fiorito.
On Jan. 13, senior longstick midfielder John Cunningham watched the live stream of the 2012 Major League Lacrosse draft on his computer. After seeing two of his classmates — senior defender Chad Wiedmaier and senior goalie Tyler Fiorito — get chosen as the seventh and 10th picks, respectively, he stopped paying attention.
“I was excited for them, because they’re top picks,” Cunningham said. He noted that he had a hunch that he would be chosen later on, but it was just a few days before Dean’s Date, and he had work to do. It wasn’t until he began receiving text messages from friends that he realized the Denver Outlaws had chosen him as the 46th pick in the draft.
Along with Wiedmaier and Fiorito, Cunningham came to Princeton as a member of what was touted as the top recruiting class in the country and quickly became an integral part of what has perennially been one of the nation’s best defenses. But the Tigers won just one NCAA Tournament game during his first three years, and the feeling that the senior class has not collectively fulfilled its expectations makes Cunningham especially determined to close out this season strong.
Cunningham said it was not difficult to tune out the attention his recruiting class received, noting that most of the hype surrounded Wiedmaier and Fiorito. But head coach Chris Bates said Cunningham has become an outstanding player in his own right by consistently collecting crucial ground balls. He had 23 ground balls his freshman year despite missing six games to a jaw injury he sustained in practice and collected 54 as a sophomore.
“It sounds simplistic, but it gives you the ball,” Bates said. “Any ground ball we get is another chance for us to score and another chance for us to not be playing defense. It’s a huge facet of his game and a strength that he brings to us.”
Although his defensive play has provided the Tigers with the possessions they need to create scoring opportunities, Cunningham has perhaps made his biggest impact on the team through his leadership role. He was named a captain before his junior season, which was no small accomplishment considering the quality of players in the Princeton locker room.
Cunningham said he was shocked when Bates first told him he had been named a captain but said it has been a “privilege and an honor” to be trusted to help “steer the ship” for two seasons. Bates said Cunningham has been a particularly successful captain because he can see the big picture and never takes a minute off from helping the team improve during practices.
“He’s always had the raw talent, but he’s become more of a vocal leader,” senior midfielder Peter Smyth said. “He’s transformed from a good player and someone that can cover to someone who communicates, can direct people around and is running the show.”
While Cunningham said he has enjoyed serving as a bridge between the coaches and the players, he worries that sometimes his intensity leads him to “get on guys a little too hard,” and that sometimes his criticism comes off as more negative than he had been intending.
Bates said that while the coaching staff does sometimes help him tone it down and soften up his message, the players who receive Cunningham’s sometimes “over-exuberant criticism” respect the source and appreciate the emotion behind it. They know their captain is harsh on them because of how deeply he cares about Princeton lacrosse, and they know that his job is to get the most out of them, Bates said.
“He’s stern, he’s real serious, and he takes lacrosse really, really seriously,” senior midfielder Oscar Loynaz said. “You need someone to get everyone in line, and he does a good job of balancing that and never overstepping his boundaries.”
As a captain, Cunningham said the Tigers’ disappointing 4-8 season in 2011 was particularly frustrating for him. For the moment, he is entirely focused on avenging that by beating Cornell on Saturday to guarantee home-field advantage in the Ivy League Tournament. But no matter what the outcome of the next few games will be, he is excited for the opportunity to play in the MLL next year.
Though he has heard rumors that he has been traded to the Long Island Lizards, he does not know for sure because NCAA rules preclude professional teams from speaking with their players before the season is over. However, he noted that though Denver has the largest fan base in the MLL, Long Island would be more convenient for him, because he also has a job in New York working for Barclays Capital.
Because MLL games only occur on Saturdays in the summer months and the salary is not as high as in many other professional sports, many players also have another job over the week. A politics major getting a Political Economy certificate, Cunningham said he is thrilled to have the opportunity to work for Barclays while continuing to play lacrosse, but noted that making the travel roster is no guarantee.
“John’s a stud,” Bates said. “Anybody and everybody wanted John to come work for them. John’s got a pretty clear career path, and he’s very driven and I applaud that. If he can fit in the ability to still play lacrosse and not have to compromise his career, then I think it’s a great situation.”