Kevin Colley, Staff Writer
LUCASVILLE — Ending three less-than-favorable streaks in less than a year’s time is impressive — especially when you think about an athlete who played a leading role in each of those halts.
Valley’s Tanner Cunningham is that athlete … and it doesn’t take long to see that in any form.
Last spring, Cunningham, along with co-ace Tucker Williams, helped the Indians’ baseball program end Wheelersburg’s string of 10 consecutive trips to the regional semifinals on May 17. Cunningham threw 9 1/3 innings of one-run baseball, allowed just three hits, and produced a sacrifice fly RBI in a 2-1 eleven-inning victory.
Less than 24 hours later, the Indians, with the help of two walks and a game-tying run scored by Cunningham, overcame a 3-0 deficit against South Point to advance to regional competition for the first time in six seasons. Cunningham’s teammate Kayden Mollette nailed a walk-off single to seal a Division III district championship.
There’s also this past winter where Valley, a No. 10 boys basketball seed, was led by Cunningham, Mollette, Andrew Shope, and a host of others, to a sectional championship. The Indians won that title by dethroning Paint Valley and Eastern Brown — the No. 7 and No. 2 seeds — and clinched their first trip to the Convocation Center since 2016.
If the above accomplishments are any indication of the near future, there’s still magic left to perform.
“It really means a lot,” Cunningham said. “Over the past four years, I’ve done a lot of work in the gym in order to work on getting better at basketball, baseball, and everything, just to try to get to the Convo basketball-wise and get back to where we were four years ago. We’re trying to get back into the footsteps of those who have come before us and played here at Valley. It’s good to get back on the right track. Baseball-wise, it’s always been my sport from freshman year to now. I’ve always tried to contribute and do things to help the team win. It was an amazing experience making the run that we did as a team, and we want to get back there this coming season.”
Living Up to the Valley Standard
As an individual, Cunningham, who’s been a four-year participant in both baseball and basketball, and a two-year letterwinner in football, has been among the main faces of Valley’s rise back to SOC II Championship contention.
The three-sport student-athlete collected second-team all-SOC baseball honors in 2017, and added a first-team all-conference accolade in 2018. This past winter, Cunningham logged third-team all-Southeast District and second-team all-SOC marks.
Cunningham’s progression as a player, however, has only been topped by the growing team success Valley has experienced as of late.
A year after failing to win a Division III sectional baseball semifinal, the Indians arguably made the largest stride of any program by winning 14 of their final 19 contests and advancing to regional competition for the first time since 2012 with two one-run victories in district play.
Valley’s softball program also got in on the action, earning two extra-inning victories — a thrilling 15-inning triumph over Eastern Meigs and a nine-inning win over Notre Dame. Valley was the only Scioto County school to advance both of its teams to regional competition in baseball and softball in 2018.
“We really got the school back on track. Now, we’ve followed that up with a better season in football, which we got back on the right track, and in basketball, we went to the Convo,” Cunningham said.
They’ve had some motivation, however.
In just this past decade alone, Valley’s churned out its fair share of special student-athletes, including Luke Keller — an All-Ohio player and All-Pioneer Football League linebacker at Morehead State — Blake Yates, Bryan Rolfe, and, last but not least, former Mars Hill, N.C. standout and Cincinnati Reds draftee Patrick Riehl.
“That’s where you wanted to be when you grew up,” Cunningham said. “That’s what you wanted to do. When you got older, you wanted to do the same things they were doing … winning the conference title, going to regionals, and going to every sport that was offered. Whenever I was younger, watching Alex Holcomb and all of them play, it was really special. I had a birthday one time, invited them all to it, and they all came. It was really cool. It was great watching them. It teaches you how to play the game, what to know about the game, and gives you a vision of what you want to do.”
Helping that dynamic, however, is the fact that Valley has more family members playing alongside each other than sitting the bench.
Cunningham, who is the nephew of longtime Valley head coach Dean Schuler — who has since given way to Nolan Crabtree — was related to four other regular starters on last year’s team, including Tucker Williams, Williams’ younger brother, Brecken, Kayden Mollette, and Jake Ashkettle.
Tucker graduated, but the remaining quartet are all back with at least a year’s worth of starting experience under their belt.
“Uncle Dean [Schuler] had a lot of grandkids and nephews and everything,” Cunningham said. “During my sophomore year, there were six of us related to him on the team, and all six were on the field at one point in time. Last year, there were five of us that helped us get to the district and regional stages. Tucker, Kayden, and I were big parts in it, Jake was a big part in it, and Brecken was a big part in it. We all had our roles in the process and had to do what we had to do when it came down to winning games.”
That dynamic, while potentially an awkward one, has been used by the Indians in a positive way, according to Cunningham.
“It helps us more than it hurts us,” Cunningham said. “We have a chemistry together and we just love the game of baseball. We all have an IQ for the game. There were times that Brecken and Tucker would get into it, but that’s all out of love for each other as brothers. It really helped, too, because Brecken matured, and Tucker became a better leader for it. In the overall picture of it, it helped more than anything.”
Athletically, Cunningham’s range as a center fielder is second to none.
As arguably one of the most underrated players at that position, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder can make plays that are simply hard to believe.
He’s had special training in that aspect, however — his mother, Lisa, was an outfielder for Shawnee State’s softball program during the 1993 and 1994 seasons and has been huge in Tanner’s training in becoming an outfielder himself.
“I take great pride in that,” Cunningham said. “My mom was an outfielder at Shawnee State, and I used to go out in the yard with her all of the time. She used to hit me fly balls, and I’d have to run them down. Growing up, I was never the fastest player, but whenever you can read a baseball, it makes up for a lot because I’ve been able to run down balls that I don’t even know how I got even close to them. I take pride in what I do in the outfield.”
The leadership around Valley’s athletic programs, like that of Cunningham’s, has brought stability. That’s especially true in the football and baseball aspects.
Darren Crabtree is the longest tenured head coach in the county, regardless of sport, while Nolan Crabtree was a player under Schuler and understood the Valley way. And in Eric Horton, the Indians have a former player who brings a disciplined style to the hardwood.
“All three of them have been a big influence in my life,” Cunningham said. “They’ve really helped me in various ways. Darren Crabtree helped me mature as a person and realize what I wanted to do in life, while Nolan Crabtree has been there with me through everything and has helped me fight through adversity and everything in my life. With Horton, he’s really helped me realize that it’s not all about me. It’s about the team. We all focused and are focusing on winning games. That’s all that matters.”
It is the sport of baseball, however, that is Cunningham’s best … and the one he has the most experience in.
“From my freshman year on, whenever [Nolan Crabtree] put me out in left field, and trusted in me to be able to play in the outfield regardless if I was in center or not, it made me feel comfortable out there,” Cunningham said. “He put a lot of trust and faith in me that I could get the job done. He still does. That helps more than anything when you know that your coach has your back no matter what. We’re going to have to have some younger players step up this year. Devin Wiley looks like he’s going to be our number two [pitcher], and he’s doing a good job. We’ll have younger guys filling in different spots, and we’ll be feeling ourselves out for the first twenty or so games. Then we’ll get locked in during tournament time and make a run.”
Overall, the experience for Cunningham during his high school career has been one that he’s greatly enjoyed — because of the faith that’s been instilled in him and the big-game situations that he’s had to execute properly in multiple sports.
“Everything that’s happened has been great for me,” Cunningham said. “The coaches are the biggest part of it, obviously, and having a bond with your teammates even if you aren’t so close to them outside of sports is huge as well. As long as you have that chemistry and have that trust in one another, whenever it comes down to it, that’s huge. I’m really looking forward to seeing what college holds, and seeing if I can play at the college level.”
This spring, Cunningham wants nothing less than to hit dingers, throw gas, and, most importantly, get the Valley baseball program to a place that it hasn’t been in over 40 years.
“Whenever I saw the bright lights at the VA, I knew that I was ready for it,” Cunningham said. “I came up big [during my freshman year against Alexander] and I’m going to continue to come up big and focus on winning a state title for us.”