Cun­ning­ham earns All-Cen­tex honor

Six-foot-6 ju­nior for­ward leads West­lake in scor­ing, re­bound­ing and floor burns.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Thomas Jones td­jones@states­man.com

When West­lake for­ward Brock Cun­ning­ham first stepped on the bas­ket­ball court as a high school fresh­man at nearby St. Stephen’s, he took note of a tal­ented group of Spar­tans that in­cluded such fu­ture col­le­giate stand­outs as Jar­rett Allen, who re­cently con­cluded his fresh­man sea­son at Texas, and DeAn­thony Owens, who helped North Lake Col­lege to a ju­nior col­lege cham­pi­onship this sea­son.

Cun­ning­ham also quickly re­al­ized what would get him play- ing time.

“All I was, was a scrappy re­bounder and a guy who would get the loose balls,” said Cun­ning­ham, a 6-foot-6 ju­nior and the Amer­i­can-States­man’s newly cho­sen All-Cen­tral Texas boys bas­ket­ball player of the year. “I think I may have av­er­aged, like, six points a game. My role has al­ways been re­bound­ing and de­fen­sive first. Then comes the of­fense.”

Since en­rolling at West­lake be­fore his sopho­more sea­son, Cun­ning­ham has added plenty of scor­ing pop while main­tain­ing his gym­rat men­tal­ity. Cun­ning­ham still paced his squad — and likely all Cen­tral Texas play­ers, for that mat­ter — in re­bound­ing and floor burns. But he also dis­played a deft shoot­ing touch that stretches past the 3-point line along with a quick first step to the rim while lead­ing West­lake in scor­ing.

Cun­ning­ham av­er­aged a dou­ble-dou­ble — 14.7 points, 11.3 re­bounds — for West­lake, the Dis­trict 25-6A cham­pion, but his value went far be­yond those num­bers for a team that fin­ished 29-7 and lost a heart­breaker to even­tual state-fi­nal­ist San An­to­nio Wag­ner in the Class 6A, Re­gion IV ti­tle game. Af­ter all, who keeps stats for set­ting hard picks, mak­ing the cor­rect de­fen­sive switches and com­ing up with seem­ingly ev­ery loose ball?

“Brock’s best at­tribute is that he’s a win­ner,” said West­lake coach Robert Lucero, who has led the Chaps to back-to-back re­gional fi­nals. “He’s very ver­sa­tile. He’s an elite re­bounder; not a lot of peo­ple can chase down re­bounds like he does. And he’s one of the tough­est kids you’ll ever find.”

That tough­ness trick­les down through the en­tire team, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Chaps’ no­to­ri­ously in­tense prac­tices. Sopho­more Will Baker, a 6-9 post who emerged as a vi­able scor­ing threat late in the sea­son, said Cun­ning­ham’s work rate dur­ing prac­tices forces team­mates to ei­ther keep pace or suf­fer the con­se­quences.

“I played against him ev­ery day in prac­tice all sea­son, and you can’t not play your hardest against Brock,” Baker said. “He’ll take ad­van­tage of that. Brock’s just so phys­i­cal and super strong. That’s what sep­a­rates him from most play­ers: He has that phys­i­cal ad­van­tage on ev­ery­one. I im­proved the most in prac­tice, hav­ing to go against him.”

Of course, grit and ef­fort alone don’t draw the type of at­ten­tion that Cun­ning­ham has re­ceived from col­lege coaches. Ok­la­homa coach Lon Kruger paid a visit to West­lake dur­ing the first pos­si­ble prac­tice last fall, and Ok­la­homa State also has emerged as a tena­cious suitor. Plenty of other col­leges have made of­fers, too, in­clud­ing Ivy League schools that value Cun­ning­ham’s blend of in­tel­lect and ath­letic prow­ess.

“For his size, he prob­a­bly doesn’t get enough credit for his skill level,” Lucero said. “He can shoot the ball, and he makes plays for other play­ers. When one of your big­gest play­ers can make plays for oth­ers, that just helps the whole team.”

And help­ing his team re­mains the top pri­or­ity for Cun­ning­ham, who ad­mit­ted the st­ing from los­ing to Wag­ner has lin­gered well into the off­sea­son. The Chaps held a nine­point lead in the fourth quar­ter of the re­gional fi­nal be­fore Wag­ner ral­lied for a 55-53 vic­tory.

“It was frus­trat­ing not to get through that (re­gional fi­nal) bar­rier,” he said. “We gave that game away, and a lot of peo­ple know it. We should have been in the state cham­pi­onship game. Wag­ner was very beat­able for us.

“I don’t want to be that team that gets to the three re­gional fi­nals in a row and folds. I’m go­ing to use that loss as mo­ti­va­tion to be the best player I can be and help the team get to state.”

Reach­ing the state tour­na­ment re­mains the goal for a pro­gram that will wel­come back four starters next win­ter, in­clud­ing all-dis­trict play­ers in wing Keonte Kennedy, point guard Luke Pluy­men and 6-7 for­ward Mathew Mayer, whose long list of NCAA Di­vi­sion I schol­ar­ship of­fers in­cludes one from Texas.

“Our goal is to play cham­pi­onship-level bas­ket­ball ev­ery day and com­pete re­gard­less of the score,” Lucero said. “That goal doesn’t change, but we want to keep our fo­cus on each day and ev­ery prac­tice. If your eyes aren’t fo­cused on that, and you’re look­ing ahead at cham­pi­onships, you won’t see all the steps that you have to take to get there.”

CON­TRIB­UTED BY JOHN GUTIERREZ

West­lake for­ward Brock Cun­ning­ham av­er­aged a dou­ble-dou­ble — 14.7 points, 11.3 re­bounds — for the Dis­trict 25-6A champ, but his value went far be­yond those num­bers.

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