Swapping her kicks for spikes

Mariah Cunningham uses her fifth year of eligibility to go from basketball to track


Courtesy Bridget Mayfield photography

Senior multi-participant Mariah Cunningham competes in the high jump at the WSU Indoor Open on Jan. 18. Cunningham competed in the 200-meter dash, 60-meter hurdles, high jump and long jump at the event.

By Drew Lawson, Reporter

In spring 2018, Mariah Cunningham had a decision to make. The senior forward from Central Valley High School in Spokane had exhausted her four years of NCAA eligibility for basketball, but had the option to play one more season. The catch? She’d have to switch to track and field, a sport she hadn’t played since high school.

“She played (basketball) her full four years,” EWU women’s basketball head coach Wendy Schuller said. “NCAA rules allow you five years to play four (seasons), so she played four seasons, (which) opened up the opportunity for her to do track.”

Cunningham was on the fence about switching to track for the 2018-19 season until a conversation with Schuller, who reminded her that EWU had offered her a spot on both teams originally.

“I was pretty hesitant because I was like, ‘dang, I haven’t done track for four years prior to this,’” Cunningham said. “After some convincing (from Schuller), I decided that I’d give it a shot.”

The Easterner archives
Cunningham high-fives teammate Baylee Rexing on Feb. 22, 2018. In her EWU basketball career Cunningham averaged 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 113 games.

Cunningham is listed as a multi-participant on the EWU track and field roster. Multi-event and jumps coach Dave Nielsen decided to place her in the heptathlon, a competition that features seven disciplines: 60-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin and 800-meter run. Nielsen has quickly noticed what Cunningham brings to the track team.

“She’s a really nice person and teammate to have,” Nielsen said. “She’s a good sport, because she’s not where she was when she was in high school as far as track level, because she spent four years being a great basketball player. As far as being a good teammate and getting better, she’s doing awesome.”

In high school at Central Valley, Cunningham earned four letters in track in addition to playing basketball, volleyball and cross-country. She holds the school record for long jump, an event she’s enjoyed picking back up as she transitions back to track collegiately.

“My favorite is long jump because that’s what I did in high school and what I’m successful at,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham acknowledged the difficulty of returning to a sport she hadn’t played in four years. She said some of the main adjustments to playing track collegiately after four years of basketball has been the less-rigorous practice schedule and change in weight training.

“As far as practices, it’s interesting,” Cunningham said. “They’re a little bit shorter than basketball, so that was new for me. As far as weights, we do a lot of Olympic-style lifting. That was a challenge to go to, and then just getting back into the swing of track has been a little difficult because I’m not the same person I was four to five years ago. It’s an interesting (transition), but a really fun one.”

During Cunningham’s four years on the women’s basketball team, the six-foot forward averaged 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. She played in 113 games, starting in 43. In 2016-17 she was named to the All-Big Sky Academic Team. Her career high in points, 14, came at Creighton on Nov. 28, 2015. Cunningham praised her experience playing basketball for the Eagles.

“It was really fun,” Cunningham said. “I had a good experience. I learned a lot. I’d say that I grew a lot as a basketball player, but it also helped me grow a lot stronger, which helped ease the transition into track.”

Schuller praised Cunningham’s work ethic and ability to improve.

“She brought a great attitude every day,” Schuller said. “She was that positive teammate. You knew every day she was going to have a smile on her face and you knew that her effort was going to be excellent. She was a player that was fun to coach because every year of her career she got better and better.”

Schuller added that Cunningham’s on-court strengths were athleticism, speed and back-to-the-basket play.

“She was undersized for the position that she played,” Schuller said. “We tried to put her in positions where she could use that speed and quickness against bigger post players, and she got really good at doing that.”

On Jan. 18 and 19 the EWU track and field team participated in the WSU Indoor Open in Pullman. The women defeated WSU and Central Washington, with Cunningham finishing 19th in the 60-meter hurdles and 25th in long jump and the 200-meter dash.

EWU will travel to Seattle next weekend for the University of Washington Invite on Jan. 25 and 26.