Thirteen months ago, Camden Catholic High School right-hander Eric Cunning had to end his baseball season before it was more than a couple weeks old.
A shoulder strain limited Cunning to three pitching appearances as a junior. The promising, 6-foot-4 pitching prospect had to shut his throwing program down, and as a result, missed out on an 11th grade season that’s often the most important time to gain the attention of pro scouts and college recruiters.
Cunning’s senior season, thus, was crucial. He worked throughout the offseason and was healthy and strong when the Irish held their first two weeks of practices in early March.
But his dreams of pitching at the Division-I level were dashed once again. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in mid-March and, eventually, wiped out the scholastic spring season earlier this month.
“It really sucked,” Cunning said. “I was working really hard, five to six days a week, going to the gym. This year, the whole season gone, adding that to missing most of the season last year, it’s just devastating. And I know it’s not just hard for me but it’s hard on my teammates, too. I know all the guys want to play ball, and this being our last year playing together in high school, it just really sucks.”
Cunning is still considering his next move, with a Division-II college scholarship offer in hand and the possibility of entering a private prep school (like Princeton Day School, the Peddie School, the Hun School). He still has a few months to decide.
But what Cunning is not doing is sitting at home sulking over what might have been — leading the Irish to a memorable season in a competitive conference and earning himself a coveted D-I scholarship. Instead, he’s doing his best to make a difference for those in need.
The same week the high school sports season was cancelled, Cunning spent a day making 40 sandwiches at his Marlton home, carefully wrapping them in bags or foil. He then delivered them to the Cathedral Kitchen, which provides nutritious meals to impoverished residents of Camden.
“It makes me feel really, really good,” Cunning said.
Camden Catholic baseball coach Bob Bergholtz was hardly surprised to hear that Cunning was using his time away from baseball wisely.
“That’s just the type of person that he is,” Bergholtz said. “He comes from a great family. His mom and dad have been great supporters of the program … They’re really great people and Eric is the type of kid that’s always heavily involved in something like this.”
The idea sprouted when Cunning saw his mother making masks for those in need. Since he had already been a part of regular food and toy drives organized at Camden Catholic, including leading one of the efforts his junior year, Cunning took it upon himself to lead another drive.
“(Every year) the school collects canned food and the baseball team has a game we (host) at a field in Cherry Hill. The kids play a game, and we give away all the toys collected,” Cunning said. “And once everyone takes the toys home and has a good day, we go and take the food over to Cathedral Kitchen in Camden. The whole team does it. It’s a really good experience; we actually see who we’re giving back to. So I thought that would be a good idea to build off of. Because there are definitely people that are going to be in need in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area, so making sandwiches is a way to help these people.”
The majority of the Irish’s senior-laden baseball team, including Henry Daverso, Colin Hughes, Tim Sawn, Darren Parker, Austin Granroth and Chris Prisco, joined Cunning in bringing sandwiches to Camden. They took a bad situation (having their final baseball season canceled) and made the most of it by spending their time helping others.
“I like the team bonding aspect of it, the team working together to help people out,” Cunning said. “It’s just nice to see everyone working alongside each other to get stuff done.”
Although Cunning hasn’t appeared in a high school game in more than a year, he has continued to keep up with his throwing program this spring. He throws regularly with his older brother, Pat, and had someone come out and shoot video of his side bullpen sessions. He has used his own GoPro and radar gun to keep tabs of his workouts.
Cunning said his goal is to crack 90 MPH. In mid-May, he was up to 88.
“The current situation kind of affected him more than a lot of other (high school athletes) in terms of being able to showcase his talents,” Bergholtz said. “He definitely has the ability to play at a high level. But he’s in a situation where he might have to take that extra year next year to find a situation that best suits him.”
A second straight year sidelined from baseball wasn’t ideal for Cunning, but he’s taken what was supposed to be his final three months playing with his friends and turned it into a bonding experience with his fellow seniors through day fishing trips, video game battles, and feeding the hungry.
“In the limited time we had together, I couldn’t be more proud of their leadership, commitment and dedication to the program,” Bergholtz said of the senior class robbed of their final high school season. “They really were great leaders for the program. I think any coach will tell you that your success as a team is only as good as your senior leadership, so I was really looking forward to playing with these seven seniors because of what they showed during those first few weeks.”
Cunning and his fellow seniors have continued to show that leadership off the diamond, too.