Steven Cunningham grew up with a ball at his feet.
The Ridgefield High senior fell in love with soccer early and always believed he might someday get a chance to play in college or beyond.
But it wasn’t until his family’s brief move to Pennsylvania for his father’s job that it sank in for the young Cunningham that he could achieve those dreams.
After a five-day cross-country road trip, Cunningham, then a fourth grader, showed up just in time to play for a soccer team he had signed up for before making the trek. With no warmup or practice, he threw on a jersey and scored in the first minutes.
“It just showed the difference in the way I played,” Cunningham said. “The feeling of stuff like that gave me the feeling that I could do it in college.”
Recently, Cunningham, a midfielder or wing, announced a verbal commitment to play soccer for the University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana, an NAIA school.
While he hoped to find himself in the higher levels of collegiate soccer — and still says he will welcome a transfer to a Division I or Division II school later in his career — he enjoyed the small-town feel of Great Falls, one of the only schools he was able to visit due to the pandemic.
Cunningham, like many, struggled with his recruitment this year. He had no junior film to send coaches and many college showcase events were canceled. But Cunningham knows adversity well, particularly during important transitional years.
When Cunningham, a self-described “mama’s boy,” was a freshman, his mother, Christina Kay, died after complications from diabetes. She was 37.
“We always thought we had (more time),” Cunningham said. “When you’re a freshman, you’re all about trying to fit in and find your spot in high school. Adjusting with that and then having to adjust with the death of a parent, especially, it was a huge thing.”
Soccer became one of Cunningham’s biggest outlets; he also learned to play guitar. On the field and immersed in the soccer community, Cunningham could distract himself, if even for fleeting moments.
Months after his mom’s passing, he was one of three freshmen to make the Ridgefield varsity team.
“As little as it sounds, that was definitely an ease on that adjustment and having to cope,” Cunningham explained.
In his first game, he assisted Ridgefield’s lone goal in a 3-1 loss to Camas. The high school game was much different than club soccer — he played for Pacific FC and currently competes with the Washington Timbers — but Cunningham relished the atmosphere of high school athletics.
“It’s pretty cool to be part of a high school team, especially in a small town,” Cunningham said. “If you do something on the field, that’s known about the next day all around the school. It’s almost like your own little professional world.”
Since the Spudders fell a game shy of reaching the state playoffs in Cunningham’s sophomore season in 2018, the squad hasn’t competed in a game. Last season was canceled before it began and this season is in doubt as the coronavirus continues to take its toll on high school sports.
Having secured a spot to play next year, Cunningham is a lot less stressed amid the uncertainty.
“It was definitely a big relief, a big sigh,” Cunningham said. “But I definitely want a senior season.”