As a freshman at Rock Bridge High in Columbia, Sophie Cunningham was coaxed into singing the national anthem before a game.
Her sister, Lindsey, was a Bruins senior, and the rest of Sophie’s teammates knew about her angelic voice, but it turned into a disaster.
“I was really close with them and they were all like my sisters in high school … but I got so nervous and I was shaking,” Sophie said. “That was the first game I ever scored zero points, so I was like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’”
Sophie Cunningham’s talents on the court are obvious.
Four games into her career as a freshman guard for the Missouri women’s basketball team, she broke the school record for points in a game with 42.
Cunningham has already been chosen SEC freshman of the week three times and ranks seventh in the conference in scoring at 16.6 points per game. No other SEC freshman averages more than 11.3 points.
Her singing talents aren’t as well known, but that’s by design.
“I’m pretty confident out on the court, but once it goes to singing I’m a completely different person,” Cunningham said. “It’s so weird, but hopefully I can branch out there soon. … I get quiet, and I’m never quiet. I’m just a totally different person.”
Before a mid-December practice, the Missouri women’s basketball team played a spirited game of dodge ball inside Mizzou Arena’s practice gym.
An excited Sophie Cunningham bounded onto the court, bellowing, “Boys against girls.”
During an intrasquad match, which she and Lindsey helped win decisively, Sophie danced around and taunted teammates before rifling high-velocity knucklers in their direction.
She didn’t tone down her antics when the game switched to players against coaches and staff.
“People might see her warm up or watch her in a game and think, ‘This girl’s not focused; she’s not dialed in,’ ” Lindsey said. “But if you get Sophie too focused and bring that energy and that spunk down, she doesn’t perform well. That’s something really unique about her.”
Sophie has an off switch, especially during installation days at practice or during film study, but at pretty much all other times — even during games — “she’s a ball of fire,” Lindsey said.
“I haven’t wanted to rein her in at all,” Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. “I love the way she carries herself. She’s very confident. She’s got a little bit of alpha to her, which I think is very hard to find in females. I think that impacts her teammates.”
Cunningham — who averaged 21.1 points with 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals per game as a high school senior — is a program-changing talent.
She helped lead Rock Bridge to four consecutive Missouri Class 5 state titles during 2012-15 and played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic after wrapping up her Bruins career.
“Sophie is just on a different level,” Pingeton said. “She’s just a different-level kid. The thing that impresses me so much about Sophie right now is a her maturity to handle all this hype about her, and when you watch her play, she so unselfish on the court.”
Rock Bridge already retired Cunningham’s No. 3 jersey after she scored 1,983 career points, and she’s been repeatedly invited to USA Basketball junior team trials.
She stepped in as the place-kicker for the Bruins’ football team late in the 2014 season after the starting kicker tore his ACL. She also played volleyball, track and field and soccer growing up.
Cunningham — a 6-foot-1 scoring machine who also sets the tone on defense — was the 2014 Missouri Gatorade girls basketball player of the year and earned her black belt in tae kwon do at age 6.
Two games after breaking Missouri’s scoring record Nov. 22 against Wake Forest, Cunningham was scoreless against Northeastern during the Hilton Concord Thanksgiving Classic in California. Instead, she delivered seven assists with no turnovers.
“Being unselfish is something that we talk about all the time, but it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re a freshman and you have all this hype around you,” Pingeton said. “ … I don't know that there’s too many players that could impact the game at both ends of the court the way that she does. That’s what really separates her.”
Cunningham isn’t interested in credit or hype, conference awards or scoring titles.
“I just try to go out here and have fun and get a win for my team,” she said. “All those accomplishments, it’s not just me out there. It’s not one versus five. … All of us are in it for the front of the jersey. That’s one thing that could really get between us if we were worried about the back of the jersey. We’re all about changing this program for Mizzou. We all have the right mind-set.”
Given all her accolades before arriving at Missouri, it wasn’t a stretch to assume she’d quickly become a star. But her rapid ascent and quick transition to the college game is still stunning.
“Sophie’s a special kid,” Lindsey said. “When she puts her mind to something, there’s not too many things that are going to stop her from achieving those goals, but she also puts in the work. … While I don’t know if I expected this much success right away, I’m really not too surprised.”
Those who know Cunningham well aren’t surprised by her singing talents, either.
She sang a couple of classic country songs, including Edwin McCain/Sara Evans’ “These Are the Moments,” at her eighth-grade graduation and reduced Lindsey to tears with her rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for a friend’s mom earlier this year.
Still, singing in public remains the one thing that will get Cunningham — who also enjoys spending time with the family horses, especially an old mare named Cocoa — to clam up.
“We always hear little glimpses of it, like when she’s showering,” senior guard Juanita Robinson said. “We’ll hear someone in the background singing, but if we get close, she gets nervous and won’t sing anymore.”
It stands in such stark contrast to the energetic ballplayer who revs up the Tigers on both ends of the floor and also has a knack for relaxing the team with a joke or silly antics in tense times.
“It amazes me, because it doesn’t matter how big the crowd is for a game,” Lindsey said. “She can go out in front of 5,000 people or whatever and it doesn’t bother her, but, even with her amazing voice, she can’t get up in front of a small group of people she’s closest with. I wish one day she’d just let loose.”
Recruiting Sophie, Pingeton knew that her game played like a symphony on the floor, but she had no clue about her singing talents.
“When I found out she’s got an incredible voice this summer, I asked her to sing for me and she wouldn’t do it,” Pingeton said. “So, I said go home, record something for me and send it to me to voicemail. I was just blown away. She’s a pretty talented young lady.”
Sophie’s mom, Paula, plans to make her post a clip of her singing soon on social media.
“If I had her vocals, I’d be singing this interview to you,” said Lindsey, who readily admits she can’t carry a tune. “ … She can sing in front of a church full of people, but she wouldn’t sing in front of a small crowd, our coaches or our team. But she promised Coach P at some point she’d sing for her, so she’s only got 3 1/2 years to make good on that.”
It certainly won’t be the national anthem after Pingeton learned Sophie was scoreless the last time she sang it.
“I’m gonna nix that one for sure,” Pingeton said.